India and the US are the two largest democracies in the world but the electoral systems of the two countries are poles apart. While the Indian system is charmingly simple, the US system is extremely complex and confusing.
The basic features of the US system are the following. There is no centralised election management body like the Election Commission in India. All 50 states, and within these, more than 3,000 counties have different management bodies. The date of the election is fixed — the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November — since 1845.
It’s not just one election but a bunch of simultaneous elections in the US. In many states, a voter will be choosing not just the US president but 20 different contestants on a single ballot, including the member of the US Senate and the House of Representatives, state senate, governor, state attorney general, supreme court judge, among others. Furthermore, there are as many as 162 ballot initiatives (referenda) in 35 states.
The onus to register as a voter lies on the voter and it is neither compulsory to register nor to vote. The last date for registration varies from one month prior to the poll to the same day (polling day). Online registration is allowed in 31 states plus DC. Any person turning 18 even on polling day is eligible to register. The registration of voters is very low. While in India over 95 per cent of all eligible persons are already registered, in the US it was just above 71 per cent in 2012. The voter identification system varies too — from different photo identity proofs to self-authentication without a photo.
The polling station can be in a variety of buildings including private precincts, shopping malls, churches, community centres, court houses, fire stations besides schools. The polling staff is drawn from a variety of sources — private, elected and others.
The voting systems are diverse — voting at polling stations on poll day, early voting in person, absentee voting by mail. The ballot design varies from state to state. Voting technology varies from direct recording electronic voting machines (like Indian EVMs) to paper ballots (marked by pencil or pen). But scanning is invariably used to facilitate counting. Some states have the VVPAT — Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail.
The turnout in the last presidential election was 61.8 per cent (compared to India’s 66.8 per cent). With low registration, this effectively means that less than 45 per cent of eligible Americans voted. Voting demographics show that older people — 65 plus — tend to vote more than 18-24 year-olds by as much as 25 percentage points. People with more education and income vote more than the less endowed. Similarly, women vote in larger numbers. Blacks and Hispanics vote less because of lack of interest. The hours of voting are longer — 13 hours — as compared to minimum eight hours (usually nine) in India.
The US has two federal bodies — the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) — but both of them together do not add up to anything as powerful or effective as the EC in India. In fact, they have no control over the election administration. The FEC consists of six members, three each appointed by the two political parties. A decision requires four votes to make it non-partisan. Its role is confined to federal campaign finance regulations. The EAC, also a bipartisan organisation, was created only in 2002 to provide funding to states for upgrading their registration and voting systems besides establishing minimum voter identification standards. Its decisions are, however, not binding.
The complexity of the election process and the multiplicity of authorities is a perfect breeding ground for confusion. It’s no surprise that a situation like the infamous Florida fiasco of the year 2000 happened when the results were first challenged in the Supreme Court but not pursued to the hilt by the gentlemanly Al Gore who lost to Bush by just a few hundred votes. Many Americans called Bush the “unelected president”. Earlier, too, in 1960, Kennedy defeated Nixon by a very narrow margin (49.7 to 49.5 per cent). Many questions were raised about the legality of Kennedy’s win but Nixon chose not to contest the results despite many Republicans, including President Eisenhower, urging him to.
This, however, is perhaps the first time that a candidate — Donald Trump — has cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the election even before the first vote has been cast. Just cancel the election and name me the victor, he suggests. He has also indicated that he may not accept the results if he loses. His supporters have warned of a “revolution” in case Clinton wins.
It’s noteworthy that the validity of results declared by the Election Commission of India has never been doubted — even candidates losing by just one vote have never questioned the results, though election petitions have been filed on grounds of corrupt practices of the opponent. We have at least three cases of one-vote victory and one even of a tie, decided by the draw of lots. But the legitimacy of the election was never doubted. That’s the reason why the transition of power has always been seamless.
What has worked well for India is a fully empowered but fiercely independent and neutral election commission. The biggest reason of the success of Indian system is extreme simplicity. All things considered, Indian elections are regarded as a model for a large part of the world. It is always good to be reminded of Hillary Clinton describing the Indian election system as the “gold standard”.
In the midst of the EVM controversy, we were often asked why we use EVMs when even the US does not. Well, all the learnings do not have to come from the US all the time. While India gave equal voting rights to women on Day One in 1950, the US had taken 144 years. And then, while India elected a woman prime minister within 19 years, the US has not had a woman president in 240 years. Hope they finally catch up with India!