Mail-in Ballots, US Presidential Elections and India

  • 05/10/2020
  • +1

With less than a month to go for the US Presidential Elections, the intense debate surrounding the safety of voters coming out to vote during the pandemic and the move towards alternative methods of voting is gaining momentum every day. Mail-in ballots (the process of secret voting in elections, in writing or electronically)  have been a part of the voting process for decades now, though different states in the US have different rules surrounding it.  


What Is A Mail-In Ballot?

tiffany tertipes example of US mail-in ballot for Presidential Elections 2020
A mail-in ballot is essentially a secret vote submitted via mail or electronically


Voting by mail or mail-in ballots is elections conducted via post (snail-mail). There are states within the US such as Colorado, Washington, Utah and Oregon that have earlier conducted elections by mail entirely and will do so this year as well. Given the coronavirus pandemic, other states like California have opted to mail ballots to every eligible voter in the state while still others are giving counties (similar to districts within a state in India) the option of mailing ballots to their voters. 


Voters have to follow the mandated procedure of sealing the ballot envelope and signing it, along with certain personal details, before either mailing it or dropping it in secure ballot boxes before election day. The envelopes also usually have barcodes unique to each voter and a signature verification software analyses each signature thoroughly. The verification process differs between states in the US but it is largely conducted, under surveillance, by a bipartisan team (members of both political parties – the Republican and the Democrats) of officials subject to continuous scrutiny, as explained by the Brennan Center.


Does Mail-In Voting Increase Voter Fraud?

American President Donald Trump has said mail-in ballots are susceptible to voter fraud
American President Donald Trump has stated that mail-in ballots are susceptible to voter fraud


President Trump has been falsely accusing the voting-by-mail system of increasing voter fraud and saying that the system is biased against the Republican Party, explains Aaron Rupar in an article for Vox. There is no evidence to support this. In fact, research indicates the contrary. A Stanford University study in April 2020 found that extensive mail-in ballots increase voter turnout modestly and do not seem to favour any party. A Brennan Centre for Justice research conducted in 2017 suggested that “it is more likely that a voter is struck by lightning than conduct mail voting fraud.”


This method seems to be exceedingly favourable with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming over the world. However, there are other concerns regarding the mail-in ballots, most of them logistical. The main issue is potential late delivery of the signed ballots which could result in those votes not being counted. If any ballots are torn or misplaced, they are also discarded. 


Can India Introduce Mail-In Ballots?

Indian elections are mainly with in-person ballots where fingers of voters are marked with indelible ink. Can mail-in ballot work in India?
Mail-in ballot could solve a lot of problems in India but needs to be planned properly. Image source: Aneeshni at Malayalam Wikipedia


Mail-in ballots or absentee voting does exist in India, but only for citizens above 80 years of age, those serving outside their state in the armed police forces and people employed by the Government who are serving outside the country, as The Diplomat article explains here. People in these categories can vote through postal ballots, proxy voting or Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS). 


Due to the threat present in the physical voting process, thanks to COVID-19, it may be worth considering a plan to widen the scope of postal/electronic ballots to all citizens, especially in the upcoming elections in 2020 and early 2021 in states like Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Kerala. 


What Are The Challenges to Mail-In Ballots in India?

Intimidation of voters is a big issue in India and will need to be accounted for in case of mail-in ballots
Intimidation of voters is a big issue in India and will need to be accounted for in case of mail-in ballots


The biggest challenges to postal/electronic ballots are illiteracy, potential late delivery of ballots by the postal service and accessibility to secure ballot drop boxes in remote areas. Mail-in ballots have traditionally also been disadvantageous for people with disabilities, disenfranchised voters like migrant labourers and tribal communities. Intimidation of voters by politically hired muscle could also propagate voter fraud in India. 


Strict guidelines and swift penalties must be implemented for such a system to function smoothly. Any change in the traditional voting methods must address these issues and efforts to educate voters on the new system need to be undertaken seriously. An article by the Brennan Centre for Justice explains the guidelines that the United States Federal Election Commission lays out to conduct fair elections, via physical voting or mail-in ballots. A verification software to confirm voter signatures, barcode scanning, secure drop box locations to deposit filled in ballots, ballot tracking through the postal service and harsh penalties for those attempting to hamper the process are some of the means employed by them. Similar methods will need to be put in place in India as well. 


While elections in India have often been lauded as a golden example of a thriving democracy, this year has brought with it a unique set of challenges which need to be addressed with new and innovative methods to uphold the country’s status as a vibrantly functioning democracy.

Story by Vasundhara Sarda for Bodhiroom

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