Mind the enthusiasm gap
Despite systems in place in the US to increase voter turnout in polls, it cannot match the Indian voter when it comes to participation at election time.columns Updated: Apr 18, 2014 22:55 IST
A week, it’s been said, is a long time in politics. As with much in politics, even the origin of this statement is disputed, though it is commonly attributed to former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
If a week can seem like forever, what does that make six weeks? Eternity? Infinity? That’s how long a candidate contesting the first phase of these Lok Sabha elections will have to wait until he or she gets the result.
In the US, the system works differently. Unless of course superannuated Floridians introduce the term, hanging chad, into the political vocabulary, as in 2000, most elections are decided the very night of polling. For the presidential elections, for instance, the results becomes apparent as California is decided around 10 pm. So, the winning side can pop their bottles of champagne that very night, as can the loser’s, to drown their sorrows. Unless, of course, you get a teetotalling Mitt Romney who probably had to make do with lime juice to deal with the sour taste of defeat in 2012.
But then the US doesn’t have to contend with terrorists and Maoists threatening the poll process. To juxtapose the two processes is like comparing apples and androids.
But I always marvel at how Indians manage to record high levels of turnout, with rural voters significantly outpolling their urban cousins.
The highest voter turnout in recorded history in the US was in 1876, when nearly 82% of voters packed the polling booths. And, as a result of their enthusiasm, Democrat Samuel J Tilden, received about 51% of the countrywide vote. He was subsequently declared the loser. The winner was Republican Rutherford B Hayes, who somewhat fittingly appears on packs of novelty 100 million dollar bills that sell for a little less than $ 33 on Amazon.
Those figures were recorded when franchise was limited to males over 21. In more recent times, those numbers have stagnated in the mid-50%. In 2008, amid an expected Democratic surge, the party launched a Get Out The Vote or GOTV campaign that was ubiquitous. I stated fearing taking calls on our New York landline, so as to avoid another robocall from comedian Chris Rock seeking my support for Barack Obama. Despite that splurge, the final reckoning was that approximately 57% of registered voters showed up to have their votes counted.
All that even though America has initiatives in place to elevate voting levels – from the facility of mailing in postal ballots to several states making booths available for voting a couple weeks in advance of the actual date on the first Tuesday of November.
Relatively low US voter turnout has often been blamed by activists on the requirements of registering to vote and, in some places, needing some form of ID, to do so. Even that has only been implemented in 30 states.
Interestingly, while the Obama Administration has been militantly against people providing identification on polling day, such requirements are considered necessary to buy a pack of cigarettes, alcohol or even to attend the Democratic National Convention, where the party’s Presidential nominee is anointed. In other words, the White House appears to believe that the US consists of a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-driving electorate and should urgently apply to the Vatican for sainthood.
Meanwhile in India, I hear no complaints about complying with the ID edict. Yes, the Election Commission does have its ambassadors and the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation to enhance voter participation. But something tells me that even without those, you would possibly need paramilitary forces to prevent voters from queueing up at their local polling stations.
There has been much of recent American pontificating on the current Lok Sabha elections. One evening my Google news feed coughed up two articles with the cliche “bodes ill” couched within their headlines. Perhaps they’d do better to mind the enthusiasm gap.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years. He is the author of The Candidate
The views expressed by the author are personal