Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Modest Proposal: With Apologies to Mr. Swift

I was back in Delhi just after the 2004 US elections. In the taxi from IGI into the city, I ended up with a rather voluble Sikh driver. After enquiring after my family, job, marital status, income (usual Indian-style small talk), he asked a question that stumped me. "Madam," he asked, and you know things are going to go bad when a sentence starts with that - "why can't the Americans get their voting machines to work? We had 100% electronic voting and if the machines can work here in India, then why can't the Americans make theirs work?"

I didn't have an answer for this half-literate yet world-savvy driver from Ludhiana back in 2004, and I have to confess, I still don't have a reasonable response. Even in a country of its size, India's 2003 general elections were a logistical exercise of mind-blowing proportions, involving a voter list nearly three times the size of the US one; elephants, trucks, trains and airplanes ferried voting machines and election officers to remote parts of the country to ensure that citizens could exercise their fundamental democratic right; and in a country of innumerable political parties and unacceptable levels of illiteracy, people turned up to use voting machines to cast their ballots. Forget computers, a nmber of these voters had never had seen anything powered by electricity. Yet they turned up in hundreds of millions to vote, and while there were anomalies, there wasn't an election blooper of the scale that America has indulged in over the past decade.

Another American election is now less than a week away, and I am still stumped: why is this so difficult in America? Already, even during early voting stages, voting machine goof-ups are being reported and discussed widely. A significant percentage of the citizenry and press are terrified that these elections shall be "stolen" regardless of how they vote - a state of affairs not to be seen even in the worst day's of Laloo's Bihar.

Here is one suggestion for the world's "most powerful democracy": Why not outsource the American elections to the people who know how to run them properly? Bring in India's Election Commission - hell, we can even give you a good price - to run US elections for the future. The EC will bring in machines that work, monitors who actually can spot and report voter fraud, and even ethical codes for campaigns including limitations on hate speech and incitement to violence.

Its a logical proposal: After all, the Americans trust Indians to design their military software and manage sensitive health records and financial data. So isn't it logical to rely on that same efficiency to manage their elections? God knows it would be better than relying on the idiots who ran 2000 and 2004 processes.

Of course there is a caveat: given the economic crisis, the Indian Election Commission just might to be too expensive for the Americans. In that case, perhaps, its time to ask an old and tested resource: Bring in the UN election observers. They may not manage the elections, but they will sure file a lot of reports on the violations. And no better time for it: there are a few hundred out-of-work election observers in Zimbabwe who are looking for a new assignment!