Comparing US elections with India’s

People in the US, especially its political ruling class, constantly boast that the nation is the world’s greatest democracy. But of all the major democracies, it is the one that makes voting hardest, making a mockery of the claim. There are all manner of obstacles placed in the path of registering voters and voting itself, such as requiring onerous documentation from voters, inadequate numbers of polling sites, requiring people to sometimes travel huge distances to vote, poorly trained poll workers, malfunctioning machines, holding it on a working day instead of a weekend, and so on. The number of failings is truly mind-boggling.

Compare this with Indian elections. Like the US, India has a federal structure. It has an 800 million voting age population, far greater than the 250 million or so in the US. But, and this is important, by law each voter should not have to travel for more that 2 km (about 1.25 miles) to their polling place. As a result, the election system is designed to take voting machines to the remotest part of the country, sometimes into deep jungles, using elephants and forging rivers, if there is even a single voter living there. And yet, they manage to have elections that are reputedly fair and efficient. I discussed this in some detail in a post last year.

The difference only makes sense if you realize that India seeks to maximize the number of people voting while in the US, the goal is to actually reduce the number, especially of marginalized groups.


  1. Ravi Venkataraman says

    We have an independent Election Commission in India that oversees the elections. During elections, the directives it issues are the law It is famously non-partisan. It can disqualify candidates for any violation of regulations, such as overspending. That helps keep elections as fair as possible, at least on the surface.

  2. says

    Canada has a similar law about distance (4km, IIRC). We also have Elections Canada, a non-partisan body that actively goes out to register eligible voters. And all ten provinces and three territories have government issue ID cards which suffice as proof of identity for elections; few US states have these. Driver’s licences are also accepted as valid ID.

    Also unlike the US, people can vote while in prison, and do at the same rate as the general population. The number of Canadians barred from voting is in the hundreds -- mostly those with life sentences for murders, but also the two top people at Elections Canada. Since 2008, I and a million other Canadians were prevented from voting until last year because we “lived abroad too long”.

  3. Who Cares says

    Where I live it is a bit different. It is one voting location for 1 000 to 2 000 voters (one city is an exception with up to 2 500 voters/location but they do monitor to insure that anyone can vote, do note that a voting location has multiple voting booths in it so they might use more of those per location).
    That said there are no areas as sparsely populated as for example Wyoming in the US. In the few locations that are perceived as too small to have a voting location they bring in mobile voting booth that is a converted bus (or a boat).

    Also no voting for president, congress and senate plus N propositions at the same time, makes voting quicker as well.
    It is just voting for congress. The biggest party in the majority coalition in congress usually gets the presidency (though there have been instances in the past that horse trading among the coalition parties meant one of the others got the office), vice presidents come from the remaining parties (and yes that means if 3+ parties form a coalition that there are multiple people with that title), the senate is appointed by our state congress/senate equivalent from among themselves but is restricted to the need to send a selection that is representative of number of people the parties have in the state equivalent.

    Also no gerrymandering. A voting district is a city or multiple smaller cities/villages together in an as compact form as possible.

  4. anat says

    The whole ‘registering to vote’ is a strange concept to me as someone who grew up in Israel. The Ministry of Interior keeps track of births, deaths, naturalizations, etc, and when you become eligible to vote you get sent a card to your official residence with your voter information. When we left Israel we changed our official residence to my parents’ address (as we had them handle our affairs), and when my son turned 18 his voter information card arrived at my parents’ home.

    OTOH we can’t vote as absentees, if we want to vote in Israeli elections we need to make our way over there. Within Israel there has been an increase in options for absentee voting -- originally this was intended mainly for soldiers (and voting from abroad for some sailors and for members of official diplomatic delegations) but by the 1990s it became possible for patients in hospitals and for prisoners to vote. People who are simply away from home or who have not updated their official residence need to travel to vote, but it’s a small country, election day is a holiday, and public transportation on election day is free.

  5. says

    anat (#4) --

    If you think that’s bizarre, try Taiwan. They have to be here so thousands fly back for elections, but that’s just the beginning. Unless they own property, they have to vote where they were born, not where they live. Come election day, tens of thousands travel across the island, creating a human traffic jam and overloading the bus and rail systems. Foreigners stay home to stay out of the way.

    It’s not gerrymandering, but it is a ridiculous waste of effort, resources, and cost to individuals. The government knows where everyone lives (the national ID card system), so there’s no reason for it. I hope the government is changing it before the next election in a few years’ time; January 2020 was the last election.

  6. mnb0 says

    “in the path of registering voters”
    This I’ll never understand. The two countries I’m familiar with have a Burgerlijke Stand

    which translates as something like Civil Registration Office (CRO). Every municipality has one; registering is mandatory by law for everyone staying permanently. This CRO automatically a voting card (literal translation of “stemkaart” -- you need to bring it with you when voting) to everyone who is registered and has the right to vote. Of course sometimes it goes wrong (once I received my voting card the day after election day). Then you can go to the city hall and get one (bring your ID-card or passport). At the voting station the voting card is compared with the election list. I’ve no idea what exactly happens when the comparison fails; I’m not aware of anyone who ever has complained. Then you vote. The entire process takes just a few minutes. There are no long lines either.
    I know it’s a stupid, perhaps even insulting question. Americans, what’s your f*****g problem?!
    Apparently this:

    “in the US, the goal is to actually reduce the number, especially of marginalized groups.”
    Well, this confirms my evaluation that the USA are no longer a democracy.

  7. mnb0 says

    @1 RaviV: Suriname and The Netherlands have the same. This woman

    has presided the Surinames one several times (and pissed off many a politician).

    @2 Intransitive: in The Netherlands only a judge can rob a citizen from his/her right to vote. One reason is being convicted for a crime against humanity. In practice this hasn’t happened for years now.

    @4 Anat: Dutch abroad can vote, but it’s rather complicated. For me it would mean travel four times 100 km to the Dutch ambassady.

  8. jenorafeuer says

    In addition to Intransitive’s comment at #2, in Canada if you check a box on your tax returns, the Canada Revenue Agency (the tax office) is authorized to share its information with Elections Canada, so they can know where you live and automatically sign you up without sending canvassers around door to door every few years. That’s been in place for… over twenty years now, at least. It’s something that happened in my lifetime. But it means that for most people, you just get a card in the mail telling you where your polling station is. The exception being of course if you’ve moved within the last few months.

    (You have to check the box because otherwise there are privacy laws in place which prevent government agencies from sharing too much information with each other.)

  9. prl says

    Australia doesn’t have a citizen’s register (an attempt to try to do it in the 1980s gained no traction), but it does have compulsory registration to vote (and compulsory voting). The statutory, but independent Australian Electoral Commission sets electoral boundaries, manages the electoral roll (including actively taking measures that all eligible voters are registered), and runs elections. Its work is largely uncontroversial, though parties are allowed to challenge electoral boundaries in the courts, and dispute election results and campaign irregularities in the Court of Disputed Returns (The High Court). These are uncommon, but are generally uncontroversial, and I onl;y recall one instance causing a change in the result.

    In a federal election, it’s possible to vote in any polling place (including overseas ones set up in Australian embassies, high commissions and consulates overseas), and if you can’t make it to a polling place on the election day (always a Saturday) you can do an in-person pre-poll vote at a more limited number of places, and if that’s not possible, you can sak for a postal (mail-in) vote. Prepoll votes and postal votes are also uncontroversial (and uaually benefit the conservative parties, though that seems to be changing).

    A small minimum travel to a polling place is seen as infeasible in Australia, but mobile polling places visit remote communities in the weeks before elections. This is also seen as completely non-controversial.

    If the election happens in mid-winter and you happen to be in an Australian Antarctic research station, there are provisions in the Federal Electoral Act to ensure that you can vote from there.

    The preferential/single transferable vote counting systems are more complicated than the first-past-the-post counts used in many places, but the government is usually decided by about 9-10pm Eastern Time on election day (with polls closing at 6pm Eastern Time in the Eastern states). The senate vote is more complicated, and the final makeup of the Senate often takes 1-2 weeks to finalise, but the Government isn’t formed in the Senate.

    Compulsory electoral enrollment and compulsory voting may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does mean that there is an obligation on the government to ensure that you can be enrolled and can vote if you are eligible.

    In case that all seems too good to be true, in the 2013 Federal election, ballot boxes containing ~1400 Senate ballot papers went missing in transport, and the Electoral Commission was forced to run a new Senate election for the state.

  10. Who Cares says

    The process goes like this:
    Check to see if the form of identification a voter has is of on the list of valid ones (so no trying to vote by presenting your credit card)
    Check voting card to see if embedded security is there, paper looks right, etc.
    Check the number on the card to see if it isn’t invalidated
    Identity check, comparing it to see if the form of (valid) ID has the same data on the card that is on

    This is the end if you are only voting for yourself. Fail the step two & three and your voting card gets confiscated, the failing the last step normally just results in expulsion but there are cases where people got into court for identity fraud.
    Getting past these steps and you can vote for yourself.
    If someone has authorized you to cast a vote in their place there are a few more steps.
    Check to see if the authorization is correctly filled out, if it isn’t you are expected to leave and go to find the person you are voting for, no filling out missing details once they are pointed out to you
    Check to compare a copy of the ID of the person giving the authorization to vote with their voting card (provided by the person voting)

    Pass that and you can vote for someone else.
    Funny business that doesn’t result in the outright rejection of the ability to vote, a waterlogged voting card on which the information is barely legible for example, gets added to the notes section of the stack of papers (most important bit is the ballot count and a who the votes are for pages, which is a simple measure to stop claims of ballots being switched out or added/removed in transit) which is sent to the central counting location with the ballots

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