It only takes India a month to set up a better election than the US

This is the result of the Indian government’s determination to reach every single voter, no matter the practical challenges. Whether at the top of the Himalayas or in the middle of a forest, it ensures no one has to travel over 2 km (about 1.2 miles) to get to the polls. It even has a budget for elephants to carry machines to hard-to-reach areas.

SY Quraishi, who was India’s highest election official between 2010 and 2012, calls the massive endeavor “an undocumented wonder” in his 2014 book about running the world’s largest election—that’s actually its title. “I mean to diminish no individual, institution, or phase in our history when I say that India is valued the world over for a great many things, but for three over all others: The Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi, India’s electoral democracy,” he writes.

To be sure, the Indian election is a thing of wonder. Its scale alone is mind-boggling: More than a million polling stations, 900 million voters, nearly 2,300 parties.

It is also an impressive work of democratic logistics that can teach a few lessons to the rest of the world, including countries with far more resources, like the US.

No voter left behind

“India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its 700,000 villages,” Gandhi famously said of his country. That statement still rings true when it comes to voting. There are over 640,000 villages in India, and the election commission, the non-partisan body in charge of the election, has the daunting constitutional mandate of reaching them all. So it set up an ingenious, thorough system to do so—one that’s so on top of voter affairs, that the world’s biggest election can be prepared in a month.

Ashok Lavasa, one of the two election commissioners, who, with the chief election commissioner, run India’s Election Commission, says the key to pulling it off is focusing on two goals: “To keep the electoral roll updated, and to conduct elections whenever they are due.” This would be a large task in most countries. In India, it’s a gargantuan one, as it means making sure over 900 million voters—by far the largest electorate in the world—are ready to cast their ballots.

To get it done, the commission has set up a multi-layered system of over a million people that connects its national leadership in Delhi to all voters, no matter how remote their location. From the Delhi headquarters, the registration work is shared with the country’s 29 states and then with the nearly 700 districts within those states. Finally, the last mile—or rather, the last 2 km—is taken on by booth-level officers, one for each of the 1.035 million polling stations.

According to the Indian constitution, all citizens above 18 have a right to vote. Voter registration is an ongoing, proactive effort undertaken by the Election Commission, which has a mandate of reaching all the eligible voters at the right location, and providing them with voter IDs.

The commission uses a combination of community-based personal outreach, determination and clever solutions. For example, to make up for high illiteracy rates, booth-level officers—each typically responsible for about 1,000 voters—explain in person how the elections work and their importance. They even direct voters to their polling station location. Voter ID cards are delivered in person too, because many voters lack home addresses, and it’s hard to track whether mailed information has been received. The commission also delivers all other elections-related notices in person.

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