November 10, 2020The Printliberal democracyinformation age

Out-station voters should be allowed to vote without having to travel home

I observed the parliamentary elections in the Maldives as a member of an international mission. It was striking how citizens from anywhere in the Maldives could vote in their home constituency election from anywhere else, provided they had previously registered.

The Print This is an unedited cut of my weekly column in The Print (2018-2021)

Many of those who followed the drama of the US presidential election last week were struck by the seemingly patchy and disorganised manner in which the votes were counted. This also led to the impression that Joe Biden caught up” with Donald Trump in the four battleground states that ultimately swung the election in favour of the Democrats. A number of Indian commentators took the opportunity to pat themselves on the back by comparing India’s own voting system favourably with that of the United States. As much as these conclusions are right at a superficial level, a deeper look suggests both direct comparisons are misleading and that democracies can learn things from each other.

The US president is not directly elected by the majority of people by design. Indeed, in many recent elections — including in 2016 — the winner of the electoral college has received fewer popular votes than the challenger. It might startle a lot of people — even in the United States — to know that it is a part of their constitutional system. Now it is fairly well known that the founders of the United States paid a lot of attention to prevent accumulation of power in the hands of one person. We have them to thank for the doctrine of separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary. What is less well known is that they also engineered the system in such a way that raw democracy — in terms of majority votes — does not override individual liberties, and does not wreck the federal structure of the United States.

The latter is the reason why there is an electoral college, and why each of the 50 states can decide on the rules of electing them. To those who do not understand the underlying logic, the system looks disorganised, chaotic and inefficient. Many of my East Asian friends look at India’s political system and reach a similar — and mistaken — conclusion. It is easy for powerful, popular politicians to influence centralised institutions with nationwide jurisdiction. But as we saw last week, it is extremely difficult even for a sitting US president with a massive popular base to influence the election systems and courts in 50 different states.

What we can learn

This is not to say that the US electoral system does not need to be upgraded for the 21st century. Many experts in the US agree that it does. Such reform, however, should be consistent with the structural design and constitutional intent. While ‘the US should let our Election Commission conduct its elections’ makes for smug, feel-good conversation, we should recognise that voting and election mechanisms are but one part of the liberal democratic system, and can no more be substituted across countries than engines across models of cars.

Democracies, of course, can learn from each other. The makers of India’s Constitution studied the US model and incorporated many ideas from there after carefully translating it for the Indian context. There is perhaps something that the US can learn from the way India conducts its elections, but that is something for the Americans to decide. We can be proud, if and when they do.

A more useful question for us is what can India take away from the US elections?

For me, the biggest learning is in terms of voter inclusion and enfranchisement. One of the main reasons for the delay in the announcement of results (and the appearance that Biden caught up”) is early voting and postal ballots. This year saw a greater interest in postal ballots both due to the pandemic and because of the Democratic Party’s promotion of, and the Trump administration’s opposition to, greater postal voting. A majority of the states in the US allow postal voting from home for everyone as an option. In these states, it is the citizen’s choice to use the postal ballot or go to the polling booth.

Postal voting is a great mechanism for voter inclusion and enfranchisement: senior citizens, people with disabilities, people with jobs that require them to be elsewhere, all can vote fairly easily. But it comes at a cost — there is nothing to prevent voters from being coerced or forced into voting against their wishes. Perhaps this is not as much of a concern in the United States as it is in India, where gender relations, social hierarchies and muscle power are significant political factors. We can’t copy the American method but we can learn something from it. The Indian Election Commission’s decision to allow postal voting for essential workers, those above 80, those disabled, and Covid quarantined in the recently concluded Bihar election is a step in this direction; albeit one that was seldom used.

Under India’s election rules only service voters — essentially armed forces and certain types of government employees — are entitled to postal voting.

Can’t go back home

Given the massive internal migration and mobility of the past three decades, this means millions of people in India live in places where they are not registered voters. Going back home to vote is an expensive affair, and those who cannot afford it are effectively disenfranchised. One reason for the plight of millions of migrants during the lockdown was that they were not voters in the cities where they work; and their home states either didn’t care or couldn’t do much about them. Maybe this is an innocent reading of the situation but I think greater enfranchisement of migrant workers will improve their conditions.

Last year, I observed the parliamentary elections in the Maldives as a member of an international mission. It was striking how citizens from anywhere in the Maldives could vote in their home constituency election from anywhere else, provided they had previously registered. It was common to see polling for as many as 30 constituencies taking place at the same booth. Of course, the Maldives has a tiny population making the logistics of such an exercise relatively easy, but there again is something we could learn from. Could India have, for instance, special polling booths in every city for out-station elections? Could Biharis working in Bengaluru be enabled to vote for their state assembly elections from there?

The rest of my The Print columns are here

We often sacrifice individual liberty and citizen’s rights at the altar of administrative convenience. Some of this is justified, and given India’s size, population and hyper diversity, it is impossible to cater to everyone’s specific needs. Yet we should reflect on whether we have accepted the administrative convenience argument to such an extent that we do not think of making voting possible and convenient for millions of our citizens. As the US experience shows, leaning on the side of liberty can make things administratively difficult and appear inefficient. But counting every vote is more important for any democracy that is serious about being one.

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