Will My Vote Go To Waste?: The Need For Serious Brainstorming On Electoral Reforms

Posted on April 21, 2014 in Politics

By Kiruthika Ramsan:

Like any other household in these times, my parents and I were discussing elections. My father suggested that we vote for an independent candidate who has good credentials. I concurred. But my mother retorted that she did not believe this candidate could win and so was not ready to ‘waste’ her vote. On this, we both tried convincing her that ‘if only winning candidates can contest, then there need not be other contestants and so she should vote for the deserving candidate and not for the winning candidate’. But she was steadfast and countered us that if the candidate she votes for does not win, then her vote is indeed ‘wasted’. She had a point.

proportional representation

Our democracy follows the FPTP (first past the post) system for electing the representatives. The winning candidate needs to secure atleast one vote more than the other candidates in the contest. The percentage of votes polled for the candidates do not count. To draw a parallel, it is similar to a marathon race — the winner is the one, who comes first, ahead the other runners, no matter what time he takes to cover the distance (1 hour or 5 hours).

In India, a candidate has a good chance of victory if they secure 40% of the polled votes. With voting turnout of 50-60%, a candidate effectively wins by garnering only 25% valid votes from the constituency, while the vote of the rest 75% goes unrepresented.

Ideally, elections ought to be fought on ideologies, policies and performance. Health, education, skill development, job creation, poverty alleviation are key elements that need attention from the Government. But in today’s politics, money power, muscle power, freebies, attachment to a caste/religion/region are good enough factors to win elections. With only 25% of the votes needed to win an election, the marginal voters become important. If you can please this section of voters, you are assured of victory.

Majoritarianism is the principle behind FPTP. FPTP is biased towards the larger parties. Invariably, only two most dominant parties are relevant in the contest. It deters independent candidates and small parties from winning. It is also one major reason which keeps public spirited crusaders away from joining politics. They do not contest because they are virtually unelectable, without vote-buying or invoking primordial attachments. Even if they contest, the voters do not vote for them because they do not want to ‘waste’ their votes, thereby proving the self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is time India started looking at other models of electoral system. Only a few countries follow FPTP (US, UK, Canada, Pakistan, Phillipines), while most part of the world follows a variant of the Proportional Representation (PR) system (Australia, Germany, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea). Here the number of seats won by a party is proportional to the share of votes polled for it. If a party secures 40% of the polled votes, then it wins 40% of the total seats. There will be an appropriate threshold requirement (5-10%) of votes, for a party to be eligible to win seats. PR has multi-member constituency (multiple members represent a constituency).

One cannot out rightly blame politics and politicians for all the ills of the country. Only good political leadership can steer the country to prosperity and peace. Electoral reforms are a must for the country to attract the bright and the right talents into politics. Only when they have a chance of winning ethically, will they be motivated to channelize their energies through politics. Once winnability depends on the share of votes, the marginal voters will become less important and so the need for voter-buying and money in politics can be eliminated.

In PR, elections will be fought on alternate policies offered by the parties. Long term and sensible policies will take precedence over the freebies. To capture power, one needs to garner votes from all quarters. The agenda of the parties will widen, looking at the aspirations of the different sections of the society. The parties will not be compelled to field corrupt/criminal candidates who can spend money, lest their party’s image be dented. PR will reduce political apathy and increase the voter turnout as there is less possibility of vote being ‘wasted’ and each vote becomes more valuable. Each voter has enhanced right to fair representation.

Opponents of PR claim that extremist forces can use this system to win seats easily. But this is blown out of proportion. Also, the entry of extremists in the legitimate political process only reduces their violent activities by giving them voice in the political space.

PR may result in fragmentation of the political arena with more small parties. It is welcome because it deepens political participation of people and takes on board the concerns of the previously neglected social groups (minorities, women, tribals). In PR, it is not always possible to elect a party with absolute majority. Coalitions may become the reality of politics.

Some points that need adaptation to Indian scenario are the possible instability in coalition governments and weak link between the elected representative and the constituency. No electoral system is perfect. An electoral system has to be evaluated from a context. Firstly, our recent experience with coalition governments shows that a pre-poll alliance with common minimum programme has more reliability and acceptance from the people. Such alliances are usually reasonably stable.

Secondly, various forms of PR system have emerged – Party list (the list of candidates who will be elected to office will be given by the parties) with either open or closed list, PR with single transferrable vote (employed in election to the office of the President of India), mixed member proportional representation, etc. The latter is considered to be preferable for diverse societies like India. It combines PR with single member constituencies. Half of the members of the legislature are elected in single-member constituency FPTP contests. The other half are elected by a party list vote, so that each party has its appropriate share of seats in the legislature.
If we also genuinely transfer power and resources to local governments, through decentralization our democracy will mature. People will evidence the link between their vote and outcome in terms of public good. Accountability and transparency will go hand-in-hand with authority.

The argument that the new system is complicated and cannot be comprehended by an average Indian is regressive. Voter education can ensure success of the new system. This change to PR from FPTP does not even require a constitutional amendment. But the national and regional parties are apprehensive of bringing electoral for their own vested interests. Meaningful and well directed electoral reforms can go a long way in eliminating corruption and ensuring socio-economic development. The need of the hour is to shun political apathy and the politically enlightened citizens of India should atleast start a debate for choosing a better electoral system.