How Biden Got Elected – Comparing India & US’ Electoral Framework

Both US and India are the world’s two largest liberal and secular democracies. But their similarities end there.

Published
Opinion
6 min read
Understanding how Joe Biden, US President and Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India came into power in their respective democracies. 
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As the United States elected its 46th President after an unusually prolonged counting, election enthusiasts here in India, overwhelmed by the result anxiety, began revering the Election Commission of India for the seamless conduct of elections at national and state level.

Some went a step further to hold the election process of India at a higher pedestal than the US. It is important to understand how different or similar is the US’ electoral system from India?

Both US and India are the world’s two largest liberal and secular democracies whose constitutions accord universal adult franchise to their citizens, irrespective of race, caste, creed, sex or religion. Their similarities, however, end here.

Electoral Framework Of India and US

Even though both countries’ election framework has a foundational basis in their respective constitution, unlike India, where national and state elections are guided by two electoral legislations, namely Representation of People Act 1950 & 1951, electoral laws and regulations in the US vary across states – even for national legislature and presidential elections.

While the responsibility of conducting and administering elections in India is under an independent constitutional body, Election Commission of India, the US has no such federal body for management of its elections; there are over ten thousand administrative bodies doing this job with their own rules in US.

Though there are two federal bodies with limited roles: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) – former monitors campaign funding in presidential elections, latter assists in administering elections voluntarily.

In terms of electoral methods, India follows the controversial ‘winner takes all’ first-past-the-post system whereas the voting system varies across states and tiers of the government in the US.

For instance, while the majority of states have first-past-the-post system for presidential elections, Maine uses ranked choice voting (RCV). Similarly, at tier level, where Alaska and Nevada used RCV for primaries this year, Basalt, Berkeley among others have been using the system for their local elections since the 2000s.

While these are basic yet important intricacies that set both of the countries apart, there are two unique features in American electoral system that invariably either undermine or complicate its electoral democracy.

One of them is the concept of electoral college. The electoral college’s history is ironically based on mistrust. The Constitutional forefathers were skeptical of the principle of ‘direct democracy’ as James Madison, the father of the Constitution, feared a section with majority support could risk “public good and rights of other people” under the influence of power.

Other objections to presidential elections based on popular vote included cropping up of presidential favourites in every state, possibility of states with large populations having more say in choosing the president of the country and rendering 3/5 compromise – a decision that counted three out of five slaves as persons to reward more representation to southern states – ineffective.

Therefore, the constitution makers arrived at a bargain called the electoral college. Comprising 538 electors who are distributed amongst the states in the same number as their total strength of House of Representative and Senate, the electoral college acts as a joining tunnel between the people’s choice and presidential candidates.

The electors meet in their respective states 41 days after the election to elect the President of the United States.

US: Electoral College And Its Limitations

This is where the process gets murkier. Despite the fact that 33 states along with District of Columbia bind electors legally to vote as per the popular mandate, there remains 17 states do not have such requirements allowing an elector to backtrack from her/his promise.

Even in the 33 states with some legal provision, sixteen states and DC have no penalty for such defections. In the last presidential election of 2016, ten of the electors had retracted from their pledge.

According to FairVote, in 58 presidential elections till now, 90 electors (out of 23507) didn’t vote for the pledged candidate. While numerically it may seem a rare instance, the phenomena of ‘faithless electors’ violates the trust bestowed upon the electors by the central elements of democracy, the voters – hence undermining democracy.

Additionally, the concept of electoral college tampers with the sacred rule of ‘one person, one vote, one value’ in two ways.

Firstly, since every state, big or small, is accorded with two senators, smaller states with only one house of representative have two extra electors – owing to the two senators – increasing their representation in the electoral college.

Alaska’s population of 7.32 lakhs have one house representative and two senators, ie three electors, with each elector representing 2,44,00 people whereas California with 55 electors represent 7,18,181 people each.

This means that an elector of Alaska with less ‘backing’ has a vote of the same value as that of an elector from California. Secondly, all states except for Maine and Nebraska award all their electoral votes to the popular candidate in the state, even if the victory margin is paper thin. This factor directly affects the presidential results at national level.

A popular and the most recent example in this direction is the presidential result of 2016 wherein candidate Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by garnering 48.2 percent of the votes but Donald Trump, with 46.4 percent of the popular vote, won the most electoral votes (304 out of 538), making him the President.

Even if we set aside these practical problems arising out of the electoral college, that the world’s oldest democracy’s head of state is not elected by the country’s popular vote is an irony worth pondering over.

It becomes a more pressing issue when nearly two-thirds of the American population prefer popular vote for presidential elections over electoral vote.

If the United States’ has modified its electoral college thrice in the year 1800, 1933 and 1961 through 12th, 20th and 23rd constitutional amendments, there remains no implementation hindrance, except for agreement of states.

Vote Counting Process In The US

Another feature that unnecessarily slows down the electoral process in the United States is the counting of votes. The reason for such delay is inextricably linked to the voting equipment used by the states, which is mostly ballot paper, and the mail-in or the postal votes.

Although the states begin counting of votes as soon as the voting ends, the final result is not known on the election day. Other than the counting of ballot papers which is a cumbersome process, the varied dates of every state to open their postal ballots stretches the counting period.

While it is a usual process in the US’ elections, the vote counting in 2020 elections has been unusually slower due to large numbers of mail-in votes because of the covid pandemic.

For instance, while the 2016 presidential election had around 5 million early voters/mail ballots, the 2020 presidential election has been projected to have over 100 million early voters. The problem is exacerbated by overworked and small polling staff of 600,000 officials, who include private and public officers.

India’s Vote Counting: EVM

In contrast, though taking a week or two before the counting, India takes just one day to declare its results – thanks to EVMs. With over ten states resorting to voter-verifiable paper audit trail machines (VVPAT), states could once again give electronic voting machines a second thought.

If not, the next feasible option for the country to fasten its counting operation is scaling up their polling staff to India’s level. Along this path, the world’s largest democracy could become a guiding light to the world’s oldest democracy.

Considering how different electoral mechanisms of the United States of America and India are – where one is a completely decentralised system, the other is fully centralised – it is unfair to compare the two.

Judging them on a yardstick which is mutually exclusive would be undermining and belittling the efforts electoral management bodies go through to provide for a free and fair election in both the countries.

At the end, while India and the US could learn lessons from each other, what matters is that people’s faith in elections must remain intact.

(The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder – The Making of the Great Indian Election’. He tweets @DrSYQuraishi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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