The ongoing U.S. presidential elections are the most contentious in recent memory. Even before Election Day on 3rd November, over 300 lawsuits had been filed challenging voting regulations in different U.S. states. Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Bihar in India is also conducting its own high-voltage elections, although with decidedly less fanfare and media attention.  

Elections in the U.S. and India are conducted very differently, the primary distinction being that U.S. states are in charge of making their own regulations for elections, compared to a centralized body for India. Given the uptick in election-related legal challenges in the U.S., we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the institutions that monitor and regulate elections in both countries.  

The Draft Constitution of India, 1948 left the superintendence of elections to state-level commissions. However, in June 1949, B.R. Ambedkar proposed an amendment to move all elections within the purview of a centralized Election Commission. The inspiration for this amendment came from lessons learnt during the preparation of the electoral roll for the first general election on universal adult franchise in independent India.   

 

The provincial governments had been responsible for creating the rolls within their territories, and Ambedkar noted that this had resulted in the disenfranchisement of ethnic, linguistic, and racial minorities. He wanted to create an independent body free from regional prejudices that would supervise all elections.   

Some members like Hari Vinayak Pataskar and Kuladar Chalia expressed concern that centralizing elections would negatively impact federalism; however, others like K.M. Munshi argued that the need for consistent democratic practices across territories trumped concerns about federalism. The Assembly eventually accepted Ambedkar’s amendment, which became Article 324 of the Constitution of India, 1950. As a constitutional body, the functioning and powers of the Election Commission cannot be modified except through a constitutional amendment.  

This stands in stark contrast to the U.S.: the main national-level bodies involved in conducting elections are the statutorily-created Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign financing laws, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which assists states in conducting elections.  As statutory bodies, they can be disbanded at any time. Both have also faced accusations of being partisan and ineffective.   

While the U.S. Constitution sets out certain basic rules for federal elections including the presidential election – such as criteria to run for President and the creation of the electoral college – the rules pertaining to voter registration and the actual conduct of elections are the domain of the states. The onerous and inconsistent voting requirements across states, which has often led to the disenfranchisement of low-income/ marginalized communities, have been the subject of many legal challenges. 

The control that U.S. states exert even over federal elections is a consequence of its strong federal system of governance. It is likely that the framers of the U.S. Constitution – much like some of the Indian Constituent Assembly members – believed that allowing a national body to regulate elections would dilute the federal structure.  

However, given the numerous legal challenges to voting requirements along with the razor-thin margins of victory in recent elections, it appears that there are grounds to review the conduct and regulation of U.S. elections. Could the U.S. benefit from adopting a system similar to India's, i.e. a centralized Election Commission?  

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