By Shruti Appalla
Amidst repeated allegations by opposition parties regarding the tampering of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the Election Commissioner on Saturday challenged opposition parties to join a hackathon starting June 3, 2017. Various parties are allowed to employ engineers and hackers to hack into the EVMs in a much-publicised event in front of EVM manufacturers.
However, the opposition has begun the game already. A department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee led by Congress leader Anand Sharma has started the proceedings for the re-examination of the Indian electoral system since May 19th. Among the review of EVMs and electoral finances, the committee shall also inspect whether the ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) electoral system is effective in protecting representative rights amidst changing voter behaviour in a country as diverse as India.
What is the First-Past-The-Post System (FPTP)?
India, like Canada and UK, follows one of the simplest electoral systems in the world to determine the election of members to the Lok Sabha. Under the ‘first past the post’ system, the country is divided into single-member constituencies. Voters select a single candidate amongst those running in the election from that constituency.
The winner is decided based on the highest number of votes received irrespective of the absolute number of votes cast in his/her favour or the percentage of vote share. Such a system was chosen by leaders of the Constituent Assembly as a means to ensure a stable government formed by clear mandate. Yet, history has shown how the FPTP system gave way to a number of unstable coalition governments.
Inefficiencies in the system
Analysis of the 2007 and 2012 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh has shown that despite a closely contested election between four major parties in the state–BSP, SP, BJP and Congress–the number of seats won is disproportionate to the percentage of votes gained. A similar result was seen in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with BJP winning only 31% of the vote share while acquiring a single party majority, not seen since 1984.
As it is a system that favours the majority opinion alone, it discourages the selection of a socially broad spread of candidates in favour of those who are attractive to a large number of voters. Thus, FPTP system creates a tendency for larger parties to remain oriented in their social outlook to a limited set of castes and communities.
The system is said to ‘waste’ many votes besides under-representing small parties and those whose support is evenly spread. Implications of such a system are widespread. In reducing the representation of minorities and diverse vote banks in the seat distribution, it not only gives an impression that minorities are not important, but it also allows for victor members of parliament to altogether ignore such peripheral communities.
Alternatives forms of proportional representation such as line system or single transferable vote have been known to allow for greater representation. The party list system, for example, is a system that allows for both single member and in some cases, multi-member constituencies. Parties compile lists of candidates to place before the electorate in descending order of preference. Electors vote for parties and not for candidates. Parties are allocated seats in direct proportion to the votes they gain in the election. They fill these seats from their party lists.
Such a system is fair to all parties regardless of size or outreach. The system promotes voters to identify with a particular region rather than a constituency. Women and minority candidates have a higher chance of getting elected in the scenario that they are present on the party list. In this regard, proportional systems may allow for minorities to participate in mainstream political spheres.
However, in previous reviews of such systems by the Law Commission of India, the existence of smaller parties can lead to a weak and unstable government. This can also lead to concentration of power in the hands of the political parties instead of voters. This happens because unpopular candidates who are well-placed on a party list cannot be removed from office. Mixed systems, on the other hand, have characteristics of both FPTP and proportional representation systems.
Are the alternatives a viable option?
A transition in the electoral system would come as a drastic shock to the population. Not only would there be a need to add more seats to the Lok Sabha as a result of multi-member constituencies, but a system change could necessitate a change in voter behaviour too.
Although the Parliamentary Committee shall look into the viability of such systems in the Indian context, a drastic shift is unlikely. The Committee shall instead focus more on making voting a lot more transparent and accurate through the usage of VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) machines alongside EVMs in voting booths. Such machines allow for voters to verify whether the vote has gone to the intended candidate through a screen. A printed slip containing the information shall also be generated for each vote allowing election officials to keep a paper trail. The report is likely to be submitted as part of the Monsoon session this year.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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