Author is a Congress spokesman and legislator who was recently invited by the US Government to study the presidential election process. Here is his account of what he saw and how India could learn from the American system...
Isn’t it ironic that the process to choose the president of the US, arguably the most powerful man in the world starts from the very small northeastern state of New Hampshire?
Be they Democrat or Republican, anyone who wants to contest the presidential election has to first be elected as a candidate of the party, unless they are running as an independent.
This is unlike the process known to us in Indian political parties, where candidates are either selected by their party’s parliamentary board or the super bosses of the party. The American process of “primaries” that starts from New Hampshire is an almost 75-year-old tradition.
In the very first week of this process, the festivities are clearly visible when all the Democrat and Republican candidates start pouring into New Hampshire. Some candidates, I was told, start their “soft campaign” in New Hampshire almost two years in advance. Those who succeed in the New Hampshire primaries mostly end up as serious players.
The story of the race begins in the New Hampshire State House - one of the most majestic pieces of architecture that I’ve seen in my career as a professional architect. I was blown away on entering the building.
On entering the State House, one encounters a beautiful lobby with a flag of the US adorning one wall and a souvenir room with photos of several past presidents who came to file their nominations. One photo that drew my attention was that of Barack Obama, the then future president emerging from the local airport with a backpack and carrying his own suitcase in 2008, when he came to file his nomination.
The fourth estate is another formidable player in the New Hampshire primary process. The newspapers draw not only national attention but also the attention of all presidential aspirants.
In the US system, a newspaper need not be dispassionate and it can endorse a candidate right from the beginning. Many candidates lobby or try to woo these dailies. An interesting story narrated by Trent Spinner, the young editor of the local daily Union Leader was that Donald Trump invited the paper’s owner for lunch and sought his endorsement.
Surprisingly for Trump, things didn’t work out as planned. Both men shook hands and came out of the restaurant but not before the editor paid his own bill.
Once the formalities in New Hampshire are over, the primaries move from state to state. The process that starts in New Hampshire in February ends in the District of Columbia in June. This is followed by the national conventions of both parties at which the candidates are formally announced. Though the Federal Election Commission (FEC) monitors the polls, it cannot directly interfere in a state’s functioning.
The FEC has a grand office in Washington DC, just across from the FBI building. The FEC has a staff of nearly 350 with an annual budget of $67.5 million. It comprises seven members, of whom three are nominated by the Democratic party and another three by the Republican party. The seventh member or the chief commissioner is appointed by the President though the selection has to be confirmed by the Senate.
One striking difference I found between India and the US is that in India, the election officers are mostly bureaucrats from the state cadres or the IAS. In the US, they are elected by the people. Another interesting aspect – the FEC cannot disqualify a candidate for wrongdoing as in India but it can impose a severe fine.
The ballot papers for primaries are mailed to voters almost a month before the voting day. Voters have two options – either they can walk in to the polling centre and vote on the machine or simply drive to centre, lower their car window and drop the ballot envelope in large boxes placed outside the building.
I was curious to see if there is a “none of the above” button on the machine like in India but it wasn’t there. Many Americans I met told me how lucky Indians are to have the NOTA option as they would have loved to avail of it.
“Cross voting” is not allowed in the primaries. In the US, one registers as a voter while getting a driving license. At the time, the voter has to declare whether he or she is registering as a Democrat or a Republican. I wonder how one can have the maturity at 16 to decide such a thing. One can’t change one’s mind during the primaries but one can vote for anyone on Election Day on November 8.
The electronic voting and counting system in the US is totally different from the one in India. After the verification of a voter’s signature, the envelope containing the ballot is put into a counting machine. These machines process 40,000 ballots a minute. The data entry is done simultaneously.
There were very few permanent staff. When I first entered the computer hall of the election office in King county, I wondered whether I had entered a senior citizens home because most of the people on the computers seemed to be aged above 65. Retired people are temporarily employed and given remuneration for this work.
What we can adopt from the US are some of the election funding rules. In the US, a voter can legally donate up to $2700 to a candidate. The candidates too can request voters for funding through SMS. Voters can even opt for payments by installment. Government contractors cannot make donations to candidates.
Websites of candidates have to display donations received and money spent. I met officials of a few NGO watchdogs who are always there to hound candidates in case of non-disclosure. The last and unforgettable rule – if there is unspent money from the election fund, then a candidate has to either give it to the government or donate it to social institutes. Imagine, adopting this in India. We would probably end up having more institutes than candidates!
An hour-long interaction in Washington with Jason Chung of the Republican National Committee, handing the social media for Trump, gave an insight into the use of mobiles by candidates. Party workers conduct analysis on a minute level as they have an app in their mobiles which displays not only details of every voter but even their spending habits and so on, further enabling party workers to judge whether a voter is a potential Democrat or Republican.
I was fortunate to have been given so much access, which allowed me to witness the election process at close quarters – right from meeting top US election officials to interacting with many major players in the campaign of both parties and witnessing the Seattle primaries.
During my month-long tour from Washington DC to Washington state (east coast to west coast), I asked many people at diverse places such as malls, hotels and airports who would win. Not many were too enthusiastic about either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
A loud Trump banking on conservative white votes on the one side and on the other side, Clinton on the African-Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups – no one had a definite reply to whether Trump really has a “credit card” or Clinton has some “Trump card”.
The views expressed by the author are personal