Turning the spotlight on America’s election custodian

The presidential election in the United States has seen millions the world over glued to their TV screens as they watch the peregrinations of this important and dramatic election unfold. There have been cliffhanger moments when State results were declared, interspersed with premature announcements claiming victory, as well as increasingly legal meanderings that have occasionally rendered some moments in the election process of arguably the most powerful nation on earth as the theatre of the absurd.

Yet, no commentator, anchor or the clutch of experts that gather around them, or editorial or erudite commentator seems even to have noticed that the normal umpire that conducts elections in most democracies, the Election Commission, is singularly missing. And, in a country all too often described as the oldest democracy in the world.

I for one have keenly observed that there has not been even a single order or intervention passed by the American counterpart of the Election Commission of India (ECI), the Federal Election Commission of the United States of America. Having been the Chief Election Commissioner (when I presided over the 2009 general election) this has struck me as a strange vacuum.

In India, our constitutional fathers had debated in the Constituent Assembly itself the necessity of imbuing the ECI with enormous power, of course to be exercised during the course of elections, and strictly on other election-related matters. By virtue of being the custodian of the electoral roll, all matters related to keeping the roll updated, fall under the ECI’s domain. Indeed, so vast are the powers accorded to the ECI during the election process that even the higher judiciary does not interfere during the course of the election process.

Thus, the question arises. Why is the Federal Election Commission of the United States almost invisible?

A comparison

For a start, the Federal Election Commission has a much narrower mandate than its Indian equivalent. Moreover, the Federal Election Commission was established comparatively recently — it ‘opened its doors’ in 1975, with the special mandate to regulate campaign finance issues. As a watchdog, it is meant to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the law regarding campaign contributions, and oversee public funding of the presidential election.

But, so far, I have not seen any report on such oversight either.

The reason is astonishing. The Federal Election Commission is led by six Commissioners. The six posts of Commissioner are supposed to be equally shared by Democrats and Republicans, and too have to be confirmed by the Senate. But at the time of this most critical presidential election, there are vacancies. In fact the Commission has hardly been able to function in the last year because of resignations, with the result that barring a brief two months, from May to July this year, the Commission has effectively passed no orders at all since August 2019, because it has lacked a quorum — for which at least four members are needed. As a result, several hundred matters lie pending before the Federal Election Commission for want of members.

I do recollect that when I was Election Commissioner, I paid an official visit to the Federal Election Commission in Washington DC. At that juncture there were just two Commissioners in the saddle, one each from the two parties. I sensed an undercurrent of tension and that even then, decision making was often divided on partisan lines.

During the course of this election, perhaps the most divisive in American history, the President has not mentioned even once about appealing to the Federal Election Commission, but only to the U.S. Supreme Court. In sharp contrast, our Constitution’s fathers decided to limit the role of the judiciary in India to the post-election period, when election petitions may be filed. The founding fathers were clear that if election-related petitions were entertained during the course of the election process, it would impede the process and delay election results interminably.

These delays and the acrimony, so adroitly avoided in India during the election process, is precisely what we are seeing now in the U.S..

Widening postal ballots base

However, India would do well to take a leaf out of the U.S. system’s book when it comes to postal balloting. In the 2016 U.S. election,almost a quarter of the votes counted arose from postal and early balloting. In India we have confined postal ballots to only a few categories, of largely government staff (for example those on election duty) as well as the police or armed forces. In these difficult times of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we need to widen this base to include all senior citizens and anyone else who may find it convenient to cast their vote early. We will need to add more foolproof systems. For example, postal ballots to the Indian Army have at present to be sent to a central post box or two, i.e., 56 APO, but before they can reach the destination where our jawans or officers are stationed, or return to be counted, the small window of the actual polling period gets over.

Accepting change

Let me conclude by saying that I have been an official observer in many countries. Wherever the final verdict has angered a section of voters, I have seen Opposition parties protest for weeks and months by sitting on dharna, often blocking whole avenues. Elsewhere I have heard the beating of utensils by those who are disgruntled for up to half-an-hour in the evenings. And now the world is watching the turbulence in the U.S. election despite Joe Biden crossing the majority mark and President Trump reluctant to acknowledge the numbers.

In sharp contrast, and ever since our first election in 1951-2 and every single election since, our political parties, losers and winners alike, have invariably accepted the results declared by the Election Commission of India, with the result that the baton has passed on in a graceful and smooth manner.

Navin B. Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India , the biographer of Mother Teresa, and the author of  Every Vote Counts

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 4:29:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/turning-the-spotlight-on-americas-election-custodian/article33053738.ece

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