India’s election system won’t work in the US

During my BTech, I took an elective named Appropriate Technology, which was offered by the Centre for Technology Alternatives in Rural Areas, or CTARA, a bastion of the Gandhian faction. The course only made me sceptical about the concept of appropriate technology, because my suspicion was that the term was just a euphemism for romanticizing low tech jugaad solutions in the garb of being appropriate for the particular rural setting in which it is used. Prof. Date, who taught the course, saying that “farmers can sing while using it” as a point in favour of some contraption did nothing to allay my suspicion. My argument was, yes, we should gauge the appropriateness of the technology for a particular setting, but sometimes the most appropriate technology is not low-tech, but hi-tech that leapfrogs over the path other countries have taken.

I’ll admit though that the EVM is a very good example of the appropriate technology that the AppTech course was claiming to favour. It doesn’t fetishize low-tech and does not adopt hi-tech for the sake of it. Adopts just enough technology to solve the specific constraints that the Indian system faces – stop rigging via booth-capturing, be sturdy enough to work in dusty places without a steady supply of electricity, etc. It doesn’t try to solve problems that don’t need to be solved. It didn’t succumb to the temptation of connecting to the network to make it easier to tabulate votes. The higher tech a machine is, the less secure it is, so the the fact that it is low-tech is a feature, not a bug. In fact, I was uncomfortable with the idea of adding a paper trail to the voting machines, not because I was opposed to paper trails, but the general principle is that adding moving parts, features and inputs or outputs to anything increases the chances of failure or compromise. In the event, the VVPAT enhancement seems to have been done well, so there is no longer a need to object to it.

Now, every time the Americans hold an election, or for that matter every time we hold elections, many misguided people point to the way Americans hold their election and hold it up as an example to emulate. This is deeply stupid for two reasons:

  1. The American system for conducting elections is objectively terrible. It has probably the worst system among democracies, and if it were any worse, it would no longer remain a democracy.
  2. The American system works under a different set of constraints and requirements from the Indian one.

This is why, while it is misguided to say that we must emulate the Americans, it is also misguided to say that the Americans should just outsource their elections to the Election Commission. The Indian system won’t work in the US for the same reason we can’t copy the Americans. Our constraints are very different from theirs.

For example, Indians have good reason to envy the fact that Americans have a much greater ability to vote by mail. Postal ballots do exist in India, but only a small fraction of citizens are eligible to cast their franchise by that method. An expansion of postal ballots in India, however, would prove disastrous. There would be widespread vote-buying and intimidation of voters.

Similarly, American systems seem to provide a better ability for a person to figure out whether his vote has been counted or not. He can send his vote by mail, check online to see if it has been received, and if not, go to the polling station and vote. But before we think of adopting a better audit trail, we must realize that there is a trade-off between the secrecy of the ballot and an audit trail. The United States faces a different trade-off from us. Secrecy is a lot more important in India than in the US. In the US, people are quite open about their voting preferences. More importantly, they can rely on rules that require officials who count the vote to maintain secrecy. That choice would be inadvisable here.

So, while we should certainly envy some of the features of the American systems, we should be careful before translating that envy into imitation. Designs involve trade-offs, and we face a different set.

The most important reason, however, for why the Indian Election Commission would face its Waterloo in the United States is cultural. As a rule, I find that Indians design for control while Americans design for convenience. This is true of not just elections. It is the reason why the US is so reluctant to require PINs while making card purchases, and why we had to learn of the benefits of offering easy returns from the Americans. Of course, the reason for the differing cultural choices is partly the differing trade-offs that our nations face – the US can accept a higher risk of fraud because it has a better legal system that is able to catch more of the fraud that occurs. It is equally true that cultural differences take on lives of their own and exist independent of the underlying reasons that gave rise to them. So an American and an Indian, when faced with a similar set of trade-offs, will make differing design choices, the former favouring convenience while the latter, control. An Indian would find it weird that some Americans can register to vote right on election day, for example.

This is of course a generalization, and there are exceptions – for example, Indian voters are registered by EC officials visiting their homes and taking down their names, which is surely more convenient for those who do get registered that way (not so much for those who get left out). But the generalization is valid enough. In case of elections, Americans should probably learn to be a little more rigid, but in general we would do well to learn better how to design for convenience.