Elections The biggest event in history

Pole site in Allahabad, India
Pole site in Allahabad, India | Photo: © Amar Deep / Pacific Press

In the first half of next year, more than 150 million Indian voters will participate in five state elections across the country - more chapters in the rolling miracle that is India’s electoral system.

With 814 million registered voters - 13 times the number of registered voters in Germany - and around 110 million new voters added to the rolls every five years, the success of the country’s voting system is one of India’s unsung achievements.
 
With 29 states and seven union territories, some part of India is always in the midst of a fierce election campaign.
 
There are so many voters in India that the general election that takes place every five years is considered to be the biggest organised event in human history.
 
“You tell me a bigger event than the Indian general election?” asks Dr S. Y. Quraishi, India’s former Chief Election Commissioner. “We’re talking about 814 million voters. That’s more than the voters of all 50 countries of Europe put together.”
 
The celebration of Christmas, Quraishi concedes, might be bigger a global event, but celebrations are individual, and not organised by a central authority.
 
“Even if not everyone votes, all 814 million voters who are registered have been physically reached by us, their forms taken, their pictures taken, their voter ID card given back to them, and then we have to provide the physical facility for all of them to go and vote. This is the biggest human event of the world. It’s not just an election.”
 
Quraishi, who published a book last year on the the miracle of India’s electoral system titled An Undocumented Wonder: The Great Indian Election, twitches with excitement when he explains the details of India’s remarkably elegant voting process.
 
No voter in India use a pen or paper. Every vote is instead cast on one of 1.9 million Electronic Voting Machines stationed at 930,000 polling centres across the country.
 
Double the size of a portable typewriter, the EVMs display the candidates’ and their symbol.
 
“The machines are illiterate friendly. If the voter cannot read the name, he recognises the symbol, then presses the button next to the name. A light flashes, a beep sounds, and he exits the booth,” explains Quraishi. “We used to get so many informal ballots that sometimes they would outnumber the valid votes. Now, not one single invalid vote.”
 
Designed by the Indian Defence Ministry for a trade union election in the early 1980s, the machine was so successful it was adopted by the national election commission.
 
With further design input from India’s atomic energy agency, a special act of parliament was eventually passed to authorise the replacement of paper ballots with the EVMs in the general elections of 1998, saving 11,000 tonnes of paper in the process.
 
The logistics involved in delivering the machines to the polling stations in a country as topographically diverse as India are mind boggling, requiring planes, boats, trains, helicopters, elephants, camels, mules, and, when all else fails, foot.
 
Physical obstacles include the Himalayas, deserts, malaria-infested jungles roamed by tigers, cobras, panthers, wild elephants, and, most deadly of all, armed Maoist guerrillas in seven states who make a sport out of ambushing poll workers.
 
The first Muslim appointed to hold the title of chief election commissioner, Quraishi has become a world authority on painting the integrity of elections.
 
“A lot of the wonder is about magnitude, but our elections are about numbers big and small. Our smallest polling station has just one registered voter: a temple priest who lives in a remote corner of Gujarat.”
 
Quraishi’s favourite story of endurance and dedication to the task of giving every person the chance to vote comes from the 2009 last general elections.
 
“It was the last phase of voting, the last day, May13th, and on this day 100 million people were voting, but who were we most worried about? Just 37 people living in two villages in the Himalayas,” he recalls.
 
Despite four attempts, bad weather prevented helicopters from landing the polling parties, so the only way in was by foot. Two separate parties of six were dispatched to the villages. For four days, the poll workers hiked through knee-deep snow to a height of 5000 metres, making it just in time to phone in the results when the national count began. 
 
One puzzling aspect of the Indian general election is that voting takes place over five weeks with nine different polling days, or ‘phases’.
 
“The logistics of everyone voting on the same day is no problem,” says Quraishi. “The problem is the security. We simply don’t have enough armed paramilitary forces to protect one million polling stations on the same time.”
 
After each phase of voting is completed, the voting machines are transported to one of 4120 counting centres, where they are locked up and placed under armed guard. Every candidate then sends a representative to watch over the ballot boxes, staying there night and day until counting begins.
 
When counting day finally arrives, poll workers at each counting centre bring the machines out 15 at a time, when they are unlocked and verified by a returning officer and an independent observer.
 
As each machine is unlocked, it prints out an individual result, which is then released immediately to the media and transmitted to a national counting centre and added to the national tally.
 
“All the votes are counted by about 9pm, but we will know who will govern the country within a few hours, usually by around 2pm,” says Quraishi.
 
Since India’s first general election in 1952, voter turnout has averaged around 58 to 60 per cent.
 
When voter turnout topped 65 per cent in the 2014 general election, Quraishi took that as enormous compliment. In 2019, he’s hoping for turnout above 70 per cent.
 

FACT BOX

  • Registered voters in Germany: 62 million.
  • In Germany, people vote on paper ballots.
  • Federal elections are held approximately every four years.
  • The Bundestag has 598 nominal members, elected for a four-year term.
  • Half, 299 members, are elected in single-member constituencies by first-past-the-post voting.
  • The other half are allocated from party lists according to proportional distribution.