We saw this way back in 2000 when the infamously badly designed ‘butterfly’ ballots in Florida possibly confused voters and held up resolution of the entire presidential election. An Election Assistance Commission was created after that. But its working has been heavily criticised, and it seems to have been unable to resolve key questions for this election, like the eligibility of mail-in ballots. Twenty years after the George W Bush-Al Gore battle, lawyers are readying again to challenge ballots.
Contrast that with our current polls in Bihar, which while hardly calm and composed, still have few doubts being raised about the mechanics of the polling. Yes, there will be the usual grumbles about electronic voting machines (EVMs) and sundry allegations raised about poll staffers. But compared to the chaos in the US, our elections, which deal with harder logistical problems, take place with few problems, and we have our centralised Election Commission to thank for that.
But we almost didn’t. When the first draft for the Indian Constitution was prepared in the 1940s, it was initially felt that provinces could set their own rules for running elections, as in the US today. But when the matter came up for debate in the Constituent Assembly in June 1949, B R Ambedkar acknowledged that there had been a ‘fundamental departure from the existing provisions of the Draft Constitution’.
What had happened was observing how local authorities were creating the new electoral rolls. Ambedkar noted regretfully that ‘in these provinces the executive government is instructing or managing things in such a manner that those people who do not belong to them either racially, culturally or linguistically are being excluded from being brought on the electoral roll.’ (Ambedkar didn’t name the provinces causing concern, but K M Munshi specifically signalled out Assam, which shows the deep roots of its current citizenship battles.)
Ambedkar proposed a centralised and permanent Election Commission.This was a radical break with Britain’s system where election rules had largely evolved by custom, along with occasional Acts of Parliament to expand the franchise. The US essentially adopted this system, with even more discretion given to the states to set their rules. Since 2001, Britain now has a permanent Election Commission. The US still does not.
But two countries that shared political roots with Britain and the US took sharply different paths. Australia and Canada both faced the problem of trying to create nations out of communities spread over vast geographical areas. They also saw the problems with Britain, where the House of Lords opposed political reforms until real crisis points were reached, and the US, where sharp political polarisation — not a new phenomenon — combined with the federal system where states’ rights had precedence, prevented any real change to the system.
Both Australia and Canada decided to manage voting better. Australia pioneered innovations like secret ballots, preferential voting and compulsory participation. Canada pioneered an independent election commission, which came into existence exactly 100 years ago with the passing of the Dominion Elections Act of 1920. Remarkably, over a century, there have been only seven chief electoral officers, a testimony to the stability of the system. (Australia finally got its own independent Election Commission in 1984).
Political historian Ornit Shani’s outstanding book, How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise, which details the behind-the-scenes decision-making that created our current electoral system, makes it clear that these models influenced the drafters of the Constitution. Brij Bhushan, research officer of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat, prepared a note that sharply criticised the US and British systems, while advocating Australia and, even more, Canada as models. The June debate in the assembly acknowledged this, with several members referring to the Canadian model.
Vote for a Better System
The Indian Election Commission has not remained free of controversy. One issue, in particular — the method for selecting the commissioner (and later the additional commissioner) was much debated in the assembly, and remains an open question, due to come up before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. Yet, elections have continued to happen in India, on schedule and with little contestation, other than the usual grumbling from losing parties.
It certainly seems better than what is happening in the US now. But one point should be made. If Republicans appear to have more influence at the moment, it is because of decades of organising and being elected to state governments. Over time, the Democrats could manage this, too. The decentralised chaos of US elections may be hard to improve. But it is also hard to make worse. But a centralised system like India’s can be corrupted, and undermined relatively fast. In the long run, which system is really better?