India is a poor country. Its per capita income ($2,000/yr) is just 3% that of the US ($60,000/yr). Yet, despite its relative poverty, India takes the voting rights of its citizens far more seriously than our vastly wealthier country does.
In April and May of this year, India will go to the polls to elect a new central government. That means almost 900 million eligible voters across its length and breadth will have a chance to cast their vote. And Indian officials will move heaven and earth to ensure every last soul has a reasonable chance to vote.
Voters are electing lawmakers for the 543-member lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha. In 2014, the Election Commission of India deployed 3.7 million polling staff, 550,000 security personnel, 56 helicopters and 570 special trains to conduct a five-week-long exercise in close to a million polling stations. — www.bloomberg.com/…
In 2014, the electorate was 830 million strong, voter turnout was 66.4%. 553 million Indians eventually voted. By comparison, in our own 2016 general election, a mere 138 million Americans cast a ballot and turnout was a comparatively low 55.7%.
The scale of this election is almost incomprehensible. The picture on the right is an election rally in Hyderabad. I can say with some certainty that none of our Presidential candidates will attract a crowd close to that size to any rally this cycle.
The logistics and scale are so challenging that the polls simply cannot be conducted on a single day. Instead, the country will vote in phases over a five-week period.
And everyone will indeed be able to vote because the Election Commission of India runs the process. It is an independent entity vested with almost absolute constitutional authority over election mechanics. Removing the Chief Election Commissioner from his or her office is as arduous as removing a justice of the Indian Supreme Court. It takes its responsibility to guard the voting rights of Indian citizens seriously.
The EC will ensure that every single eligible voter has a polling station within 2 kilometers of their home. No matter how remote that home may be. This is done so that even the poorest, even someone who may not be able to ride a cart to the polling station, can walk or be carried if needed. This means poll workers carry polling machines high into the mountains, and deep into forests, often so a handful of fellow Indians can exercise their franchise.
Millions of poll workers, police and security personnel are deployed in cities, towns, villages and hamlets. They use planes, boats, trains, helicopters, elephants, and camels and travel by foot to reach far flung voters, from the snow-capped Himalayan mountains in the north to tiny islands in the Arabian Sea to the south, the desert in the west and the deep forests in the east.
This time, the commission will mobilize 11 million officials to conduct the election at 1.04 million polling stations which will use over 2 million electronic voting machines. — www.bloomberg.com/…
That is not a typo, literally millions of civil servants will be entrusted with portable polling machines and they’ll take helicopters, trains, cars, bullock carts, camels, horses, donkeys and sometimes walk to get to some of the most remote places on earth. It’s going to be relatively expensive to run for a poor country. But there are unusual expenses to cover, like elephant rental.
Some of that may be used for elephants to carry electronic voting machines to relatively inaccessible regions, and boats to ferry men and materials across the mighty Brahmaputra river in the northeast. — economictimes.indiatimes.com/…
As an aside, “mighty” is not hyperbole. The Brahmaputra carves a route across Tibet and then cuts through the Himalayas. There it has created the longest and deepest canyon in the world, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. Its walls are 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) high. The river runs East across Tibet till it can slide past the Easternmost 25,000 foot peak in the Himalayas, Namcha Barwa. There it bends around this remote behemoth, which has been summited only once by humans, and enters India to become the Brahmaputra. Here, as it winds through the hills and valleys of Assam, one of the rainiest places on Earth, the river swells to a width of 5 miles at times. Then the river enters Bangladesh and splits in two. Its western branch joins with the Ganga. The Eastern joins the Meghna, and there it ends, having carried the snowmelt of the Himalayas 1,800 miles through three countries, to deliver it into the Bay of bengal.
Back to elections. Election spending is expected to exceed $7 Billion, which if realized would make it more expensive that the 2016 US election.
The highest polling station is in Hikkim, Himachal Pradesh, 4,400 meters or 14,400 feet above sea level. That’s high as Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the Rockies, and about 100 feet lower than Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. Hikkim is relatively accessible, other mountainous villages are even more remote.
The midday sun was blazing when Biswajit Roy, a middle-aged Indian high-school teacher, gingerly pulled himself, and two voting machines, into a modified dugout canoe.
His mission: Traverse crocodile-infested mangrove swamps, cross a stretch of open sea and then hike through a jungle to the remote village of Hanspuri so its 261 voters could cast ballots in India’s national elections. — www.wsj.com/…
Despite all its many flaws, when it comes to election mechanics, India gets a lot right.
Oh yeah, one more thing, Indians will vote on modern voting machines. No differing and complicated ballots. Since many older Indians are illiterate, each party picks a symbol which is represented on the machines. And every voter has biometric voter ID as well, it’s issued at no cost and the system is controlled by the election commission to prevent political parties from interfering.
during the last general election, air force helicopters carrying polling officials were unable to land in a remote region tucked in the high Himalayas in Ladakh. Undeterred, a polling team trekked for 45 kilometers through knee-deep snow in the high mountains to reach 35 voters. […]
Deputy Election Commissioner R. Balakrishnan told VOA that traversing this last kilometer is not always easy. He cited the example of a polling station with just one voter in the western Gujarat state.
“This polling station is located 20 miles deep into the Gir forest jungle. To secure this one vote, we will send a team of officials. Even one voter we try and reach out, and then for reaching out that one voter we do what it takes. And it involves sometimes using all modes of transport, from helicopters and elephants and camels and what not and sometimes involves days of trekking,” said Balakrishnan. — www.voanews.com/…
Every single vote matters.
This is not to say the elections will be flawless, there will be fraud. Political parties in some places still make a habit of literally distributing cash to voters ahead of the election. Though gerrymandering is futile since an independent Boundary Commission draws the electoral map, past governments have delayed when new boundaries go into force for partisan advantage. That is still quite a lot better than the extreme partisan gerrymandering we in the USA have been subjected to.
Reading about the extreme lengths Indian officials go to extend the franchise to each of their fellow citizens is both uplifting and inspiring. It reinforces your faith in democracy. In contrast it’s dejecting and depressing to consider the lengths to which American politicians and officials will go to to obtain partisan advantage by suppressing the vote or frighten their fellow Americans away from the polls. It makes us, as ordinary voters feel powerless.
In India, thanks to an independent, powerful election commission, most attempts to sap the power of the people in this way go nowhere. There are a lot of things that we do better, but on this one, we might want to take a leaf from India’s book.
PS. At some point I may do a diary about the parties and candidates in this election. That will be a lot more depressing than this I’m going to put it off.