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Indian electoral democracy is any day better than the USA

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

Honest to god, we are a much better electoral democracy than the United States of America. The nightmarish experiences that the voters are going through in the POTUS elections due on Nov3, 2020 are stunningly unbelievable. We have been independent since 1947. A Republic since 1950. We held our first general elections in 1952. Compare it to the US. They have been independent since 1776 and a Republic since 1789. They have had Presidential elections since then. Registered voters in the US are around 160 million out of a population of 330 million. And not more 80 million have ever voted in their POTUS  elections. In India, we have 950 million eligible voters. In 2019, the voter turnout was 67%-630 million, close to twice the US population itself. The numbers tell the story brilliantly.

The framers of our constitution, the 289 members of the Constituent Assembly led by the Pitamaha, Babasaheb Ambedkar, granted adult suffrage from day one. Women got their right to vote along with men. It was a huge, huge development. Look at the facts from the US of A. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution. Few early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920.

By 1916, almost all of the major suffrage organizations were united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.

On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and 2 weeks later, the Senate followed. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, the amendment passed its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920, changing the face of the American electorate forever.

The campaign for woman suffrage was long, difficult, and sometimes dramatic; yet ratification did not ensure full enfranchisement. Decades of struggle to include African Americans and other minority women in the promise of voting rights remained. Many women remained unable to vote long into the 20th century because of discriminatory state voting laws.

So much for western feminism and recognition of women as having equal rights. Coming to the ‘voting rights’ in the POTUS elections, that is the nightmare it is. Talk is humongous on ‘suppression, deprivation, denial, exclusion and worse’, as a Yale law Professor puts it. And even as American States, all 50 are voting in, in person, mail in and in drop boxes, the US Supreme Court is bigly into it. SCOTUS has said that in some states, votes can be counted for 3 days beyond Nov,3. In some states, No, they have to be in the counting scroll before 20.00hrs  on voting day. Comy Ann Barett, now chosen to the SCOTUS may tilt the balance to a conservative a.k.a. Republican majority. SCOTUS may well decide  and not We The People viz. voters in the US, like they did in 2000. Shame.

Each State in the US has a different set of rules, on voting. There is total lack of consistency and uniformity. Voter Ids for exercising your franchise are different. If signatures differ, your vote is gone. A few Courts say, no they won’t be gone, as activists cry foul. Particularly, there is open, defiant and divisive attempt to deprive the blacks and Hispanics from voting, including  from personal  threats and mails too, said to be sourced to Russia and Iran.

Donald Trump openly admits that “I may not quietly concede defeat and I may decide as POTUS which vote counts  and which does not,  as I am empowered to do so by Art.II of the Constitution’. Joe Biden, the contender warns that the “American people will have the final say and  our institutions are strong enough to handle such dumb Trump bravado’. 

One is unable to keep track of all that  going on, all over each state, legislatures, streets and above all courts. So many cases before District and Federal courts and before SCOTUs all. As Eric Holder, Attorney General during Barack Obama years, says, “My head is spinning. There is no one common theme. Imagine the plight of the ordinary voter in the US, who is generally apolitical and apathetic. My prayer is that the US voter would do well to take the vote seriously and help America decide who wins and not the courts.” Shocking, to say the least.

And then what takes the cake is that the POTUS is never the person who wins the popular vote. The POTUS would be the one whom the Electoral College chooses. The electors have the last word and it is a over two hundred year vintage that smaller states have a disproportionate say in the  election of votes. There have been hundreds of attempts to change this anachromism, but the Republicans have stood firm, as they stand to gain,   as the last twenty years have shown that winner in 12 has been the ‘loser in the popular vote’. In Nov,2016 Hillary Rodham Clinton trumped Donald by 3 million popular votes, yet lost in the Electoral College stakes. Just for a sample. It was only in 2020 that SCOTUS ruled, for the first time, that the electors in the Electoral college ‘must vote in alignment with the popular vote in the respective States’. Until 2020, it was as if the voters can choose a Democrat and electors in the electoral College chose a Republican!  Downright crazy, if you ask me.

Yes, our electoral machine is not faultless or blameless. Our Central Election Commission is meant to be independent and autonomous and thanks to the bully that the legendary T N Seshan was, it has now cut its teeth. Our CEC prevails and takes over, once the electoral process begins. Look at the Federal Election Commission in the US. It is helpless, as the courts wade into the process, even as the voting is on. Absolutely compounding the confusing dynamics.  

No matter what, whoever wins the POTUS prize, purportedly the most powerful office in the universe, be it Donald J Trump or Joe Biden, American democracy is unlikely to have won. In fact, there are conspiracy stories doing the rounds on social media platforms, that Trump may yet declare himself the winner on election night and executively stop the counting process. Scary thought that. But that is all made possible by the inconsistent, unbalanced and chaotic ways of the electoral machine that America boasts of. It is a mystery how they have survived as a democracy, all these years, to become the leader of the free world. Donald J Trump is both, a symptom and product of  the fault lines in the American democracy.

Thank heavens, that in our midst,? first past the post gets to be declared the winner, as it ought to be.

(Author- Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan- is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court)

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

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