How the Indian election system works

The Indian general elections began on April 11 and will continue until May 19, with the results to be announced on May 23. It is an important election that will show how much support current prime minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP party have for their right-wing, Hindu nationalist agenda. But in this post, I want to focus on the impressive way that Indian elections are conducted. It is a mammoth undertaking since 900 million people are eligible to vote for 2,354 registered political parties and the law requires that every voter should not have to travel more that 2 km (1.24 miles) to cast their ballot. This means that election officials have to lug some of the 2.3 million electronic voting machines to the remotest parts of the country. They have to take one machine up to a height of 15,256 feet and travel 35 km with another just to get to a single resident, the temple priest in the Gir National Forest in Gujarat.

The mechanics of voting and how the voting machines operate are also impressive.

When a voter arrives at the polling place, she presents a photo ID and the poll officer checks that she is on the electoral roll. When it’s her turn to vote, a polling official uses an electronic voting machine’s control unit to unlock its balloting unit, ready to accept her vote.

The balloting unit has a very simple user interface: a series of buttons with candidate names and symbols. To vote, the voter simply presses the button next to the candidate of her choice.

After each button press, a printer prints out the voter’s choice on paper and displays it to the voter for a few seconds, so the person may verify that the vote was recorded correctly. Then the paper is dropped into a locked storage box.

The whole system runs on a battery, so it does not need to be plugged in.

When it’s time for the polling place to close at the end of the voting day, each electronic voting machine device and paper-record storage box is sealed with wax and tape bearing the signatures of representatives of the various candidates in that election, and stored under armed guard.

After the election period is over and it’s time to tally the votes, the electronic voting machines are brought out, the seals opened and the vote counts for each control unit are read out from its display board. Election workers hand-tally these individual machine totals to obtain the election results for each constituency.

The battery operated voting machines themselves are specialized devices that have features that make it hard to hack.

The Indian electronic voting machine primarily runs on specialized hardware and firmware, unlike the voting machines used in the U.S., which are software-intensive. It is intended for the single purpose of voting and specially designed for that, rather than relying on a standard operating system like Windows, which needs to be regularly updated to patch detected security vulnerabilities.

Each machine requires only a connection between a balloting unit and a control unit; there are no provisions to connect an electronic voting machine to a computer network, much less the internet – including wirelessly.

The body that runs the elections has a reputation for impartiality.

Given how US elections are plagued by inefficiencies, corruption, allegations of outright fraud, and deliberate hindrances to voting, election authorities here could learn a lot from India on how to conduct an honest election that makes it easier to vote for people. Of course they won’t, firstly because of the firm belief that the US is the best at pretty much everything and there is nothing that any other country can teach them, and secondly because the major parties here would prefer that the disenfranchised remain that way.


  1. deepak shetty says

    There is a Indian movie called Newton that you might like if you like hearing about weird Indian process that I think does show some of the contradictory tensions in India.

    on how to conduct an honest election

    I wouldnt call them honest . But it is true that politicians rarely try voter suppression -- they prefer voter buying and sometimes booth capturing.
    Having said that , The ruling BJP did try voter suppression this election in Assam -- in the guise of but obviously anyone who isnt Hindu must have walked over from Bangladesh -- .

  2. Holms says

    We will be having our own federal election in a few weeks… strangely, Australia seems determined to never give up on giant sheets of paper, one per voter.

  3. PhysphdStew says

    There is no gerrymandering too since that task is also done by the independent Election commission. EC is typically made up of retired judges and members of the Administrator cadre (IAS).

    Unfortunately something like this would never happen in the US since even the highest seat of the supposedly independent judiciary is extremely partisan.

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