28 May 2019 19:06 IST

Indian elections are democracy’s gold standard

Despite perceived flaws, the parliamentary polls indicated a high level of democratic sophistication

India proved again that, when it comes to conducting a democratic election successfully, it’s a world leader like no other. Americans scratch their heads when they learn that our elections were held over six weeks in seven phases; that more than 600 million votes were cast, nearly five times the number in the US 2016 presidential election — and yet, there were few problems overall.

The New York Times wrote: “And despite strong passions, gargantuan numbers, and high stakes, the elections (have nearly) concluded with no major allegations of fraud or rigging. Most of the voting was done on electronic voting machines that seemed to work just fine, according to observers and election officials.”

India’s ballot access rules are world-class. On polling day, voters are provided 12 different ways to prove their identity. If the name matches the voter rolls, a vote may be cast. A poll booth exists within 2 km of every home, whether it’s a hut in the Himalayan mountains or a villa in the Andaman islands. This is why India’s voter turnout was an eye-popping 67 per cent, compared to just 55 per cent in the US 2016 election.




The election process

Over 1.8 million electronic voting machines (EVM), designed and built in India, were used. Each machine is standalone and can handle up to 2,000 votes. The EVM can’t be reprogrammed once it is released to the field. It is unable to transmit any data nor is it connected to a larger computer system, so it can’t be hacked.

On polling day, each EVM generates a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) as a backup. At the end of a day’s polling, the presiding officer hits the ‘close’ button to make the machine instantly inert. The EVM’s ‘result’ button is hidden and sealed, designed to be used only on the day of counting. If found tampered, the entire EVM is discarded and the VVPATs are used for counting.

India’s elections are centrally managed and conducted by a respected, independent Election Commission. In America, each state has its own rules about voter registration, eligibility, voting, counting, tabulation and certification. Some states only allow voting by mail; some use paper ballots which are optically scanned into a machine; others use a direct record electronic (DRE) system; many use a DRE system with a paper trail: there are no national standards.

Such faults show. In 2000, American democracy came to a halt as Florida couldn’t certify a winning candidate. Constant talk of dimples, chads, undervotes, overvotes, partial, and full recounts made America a mockery across the world. Nearly 35 agonising days later, the US Supreme Court intervened 5-4 and George W Bush was declared the winner by a mere 537 votes.

Now, even two-and-a-half years after Trump was voted into office, America is consumed by a narrative that the Russians hacked into the 2016 election. While no vote was miscounted, the Mueller report said that the Russian GRU “gained access to the network of at least one Florida county government.” Each day, media outlets and critics question Trump’s legitimacy as president.

Exit poll gamble

India’s superiority in statistical polling predictions also invites wonder. Nearly every private poll accurately predicted that the BJP/NDA alliance would win, with some predictions accurate to within a few seats. Contrast this in 2016, when both the Brexit result and Trump’s victory profoundly shocked pollsters and pundits. This year, polls predicted that Israel’s Netanyahu would lose; he won. Even in the Australian elections this month, the Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, was supposed to have won. It lost.

There’s also the reaction of those who lost. Rahul Gandhi, in a concession speech, acknowledged that the public has given its verdict. “Narendra Modi and the BJP have won. I would like to give them my heartiest congratulations.” Contrast this with Hillary Clinton’s statement this month that the 2016 election was stolen from her. Stacey Abrams, the sore loser in the Georgia Governor’s race, has still not conceded defeat six months after election day, alleging voter suppression.

The gold standard

For a country plagued by generations of functional illiteracy, the Indian voter is remarkably discerning in differentiating between State and central elections. Consider the state of Odisha. Voters elected BJP candidates for 40 per cent of all MP seats, punishing the local BJD party. For State government elections, however, voters gave a thumping majority to the BJD candidates, choosing them for 83 per cent of the seats.

Contrast this advanced level of democratic sophistication with the practice of ‘straight-ticket voting’ in the US wherein voters choose the party of the topmost official that they intend to cast a ballot for, say the presidency, and with one click, can have votes automatically cast for every other official on the ballot representing the same party (such as Senate, Member of Congress, and local Mayor). Voters can choose not to engage in straight-ticket voting by individually choosing candidates for different positions but many care not to be bothered by the extra effort.

The year 2019 again shows that for all its perceived flaws, Indian elections are democracy’s gold standard — an incredible accomplishment of which the country should be proud.