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An Indian way for USA

There was a time not long ago when Americans had to go to a polling booth to cast their votes on election day. Absentee ballots were accepted if they were received by election day, and they could vote early if the polling booth was open. This was true whether the election was the presidential election or the midterm election or some other special national election.

BASAB DASGUPTA | New Delhi |

There was a time not long ago when Americans had to go to a polling booth to cast their votes on election day. Absentee ballots were accepted if they were received by election day, and they could vote early if the polling booth was open. This was true whether the election was the presidential election or the midterm election or some other special national election.

Furthermore, the votes were counted, and the election results were announced within 24 hours after the polls closed, except in some unusual circumstances such as the infamous George W. Bush vs Al Gore contest in the year 2000. The situation changed dramatically because of the coronavirus pandemic. The goal was to avoid gatherings of large numbers of people in small rooms. Mail-in ballots were allowed and accepted not only for a period preceding the election day but also for several days afterwards if they were postmarked on or before election day.

Since the counting of mail-in ballots was done manually, this delayed the counting process, and the final tally was not known for days. However, the most serious impact of this change was the fact that manual counting opened the door for both mistakes and fraudulent casting of votes. Determination of when the ballot was mailed and the authenticity of the signature on the ballot became big issues.

In addition, there were reports of accidents whereby mail trucks carrying tens of thousands of ballots were destroyed. Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that the 2020 election was stolen from him and the ensuing Capitol riot on 6 January 2021, were sad consequences. This whole episode certainly raised questions about the fairness of the process. In a country where one party dominates the political scene, a certain degree of error in tabulation would not be that significant.

Unfortunately, America has been almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans in recent years and the elections are being decided by rather margins in a handful of so-called “battleground” states. Trump did not even win a majority of popular votes in 2016 and Hillary Clinton felt the election was stolen from her. It was not just Trump’s defeat in 2020, the recent stunning failure of the GOP in the 2022 midterm election to capture a substantial majority in the House despite all the predictions of a “red wave” from political pundits leads one to suspect that perhaps not everything is perfect with the process.

Many people are advocating enforcing the old system of holding the election on a specific date and imposing the requirement of voting in person at a polling booth, but it is not clear how and if that can be accomplished in the current atmosphere of hyper-partisanship.

Without going into a partisan debate, I would like to suggest a feasible alternative – an all-electronic voting process i.e., a process where both casting and tabulation of votes are done electronically. It is shocking to me that in the USA – supposedly technologically the most advanced nation in the world – the votes are still counted manually over a period of days if not weeks.

Let us contrast that with the scenario of depositing a check with a large dollar amount in a bank. These days, I can deposit a check in a matter of seconds from the comfort of my home if I have an “app” of the bank on my smartphone. I have absolutely no concern about the security and accuracy of the accounting process. The deposit shows up in my account almost instantly. I am not an IT expert and do not understand the technology behind the voting process.

However, it is not unreasonable for me to envision a similar electronic process for a voter to scan and deposit his ballot into some account without any fear of fraud from anywhere he/she chooses, and the results can be tabulated instantly. After some research on the internet, I discovered that it is not such a radical idea. The technology exists – it is called Internet voting or I-voting and can be implemented in a straightforward way.

First, think about the advantages. There will be no longer any need for absentee ballots because electronic votes can be cast from anywhere. Secondly, there will be savings of huge amounts of money that are spent on printing and mailing paper ballots. In addition, voter turnout would increase significantly because there will be no excuse left for not voting. Of course, a mechanism must be in place to make sure that multiple voting by the same person is disallowed.

For example, ballots can be electronically distributed to all voters with a unique barcode which can be scanned only once to ensure this. Just like mailing addresses, everyone would be required to provide their email addresses when they register to vote.

One reason voting ballots are complicated is that in addition to presidents, vice presidents, senators, and congressmen many local positions are also decided; in addition, several propositions are attached, and the voter must also decide on those issues. This perhaps suggests that candidates for local and state offices as well as proposition issues should somehow be separated from the general election in the ballot.

While that might be more expensive to do with paper ballots it should not be difficult to implement electronically as different options on a computer screen. Of course, my proposal presupposes that each voter has access to an electronic portal, be it a computer or a smartphone, or some other gadget and he/she is savvy in its use.

To facilitate 100 per cent electronic voting, some local centers can be set up just like polling booths where computers and necessary guidance are available for voters who are not savvy with computers. However, there are many obstacles that must be overcome to implement all-electronic voting. One is the concern of hacking by hostile foreign governments such as Russia, N. Korea, and Iran. It seems the more security safeguards are placed to protect data, the more hackers invent newer ways.

Secondly, the Federal Election Commission, the agency that administers the process, is a mammoth organization with its own self-interests and bureaucracy. It may not be interested in embracing new ideas. Objections would also be raised if the voters in rural and remote areas fail to access the internet. It is also conceivable that technology companies like Microsoft or Meta, which are all of the liberal persuasion from a political point of view, might not be enthusiastic about embarking on a project like this because it does not benefit their causes.

There are also fundamental objections to such electronic polling based on the belief that human beings cannot detect/correct malfunctions of machines. The issue of the vulnerability of manual voting and counting to fraud is a universal one and is in the way of implementing true democracy.

Several countries including Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, and the UK reportedly implemented electronic voting but later switched back to a manual process because of unforeseen problems.

In any event, it is a shame the way elections are being held in the US and something has got to be done. It is interesting to note that India is going in the opposite direction and has embraced an all-electronic voting process, pioneered by Bharat Electronics. It is perhaps not surprising considering the dominance of Indian IT engineers. Is it conceivable that India will show the rest of the world how to conduct a fair and impartial election process using all-electronic voting protocols without any error or fraud? Is it possible that India will lead the world in establishing true corruption-free democracy everywhere? Nothing will give me greater joy if that turns out to be the case.