If Internet voting is made safe, secure, NRIs can vote in polls in India: V S Sampath

Encouraging voter turnout in Assembly elections, says India’s Chief Election Commissioner.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: India’s Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath gave a talk at the Brookings Institution here, during which he outlined the history of the democratic process in India, the challenges the country faces going forward into the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and what the future of NRI voting may be.

Sampath spent the majority of his lecture providing a history of the Indian democratic process, from the first election six decades ago to today.

Sampath outlined how his office, the Election Commission of India (ECI), has evolved and grown in that time, and how critical its role is in providing free and safe elections for a country of over one billion people.

Both Sampath and Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott said that they expect a voter turnout near 800 million when elections are held this coming May, a new record for India, which has been ramping up its efforts in voter registration and combating voter apathy.

To compare, according to numbers provided by Sampath, North America has a voter turnout of 324 million out of a population of roughly 528 million, equaling 61%. Eight-hundred million voters in India, out of a population of 1.2 billion, would be 66%. It’s also a higher turnout, in terms of number of individuals, than North America and the European Union combined.

Sampath said that apathy among citizens in urban areas is one of the biggest problems to him, and that he is particularly proud of the fact that voter turnout in Delhi for the elections earlier this month came in at about 65%, a huge increase from the 35-40% it’s hovered around in recent years.

Voter turnout in all five states which held elections saw noticeable improvements in voter turnout. From the last assembly elections to the latest one, voter turnout in Chattisgarh rose from 70.37% to 77%, in Madhya Pradhesh from 69% to 72.66%, in Mizoram from 80.42% to 83.41%, in Rajasthan from 66.49% to 75.65%, and in Delhi from 57.58% to 66.1%.

Also noteworthy is that, in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, females experienced higher turnout than men did.

Sampath said that the biggest challenge to the efficacy of elections in India is the media, and said it was a constant struggle to maintain a balance in which the government is not stifling the media’s right to speech, but is also not allowing the media to unduly influence the results of the election.

When asked how the ECI deals with that problem, Sampath replied “that is not only a good question, but an impossible question [to answer].”

Looking to the future, Sampath discussed the possibility of NRIs being able to vote in future elections. When asked, Sampath divulged that the possibilities of both postal and internet voting had been explored, but were not feasible currently. The postal method involves an unrealistic expectation that ballots can be mailed to nearly 200 countries where NRIs reside, be filled out, mailed back, and counted within a matter of a few weeks.

The internet method has been tabled for now because the ECI and Sampath remain unconvinced of its security and safety, saying that they are “very wary of potential fraud and tampering.”Sampath did say, however, that if internet voting could be made safe and secure, it could be implemented for future elections.

Ron Somers, President of the US-India Business Council (USIBC) and moderator of the post-lecture discussion, called the upcoming elections in India “the largest democratic undertaking in human history.”

The USIBC co-sponsored Sampath’s hour-long lecture, along with The Confederation of Indian Industry, represented at the event by its North American Director and Head, Sandhya Satwadi.

To contact the author, email to deepakchitnis@americanbazaaronline.com

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