US Election 2020: No candidate can declare results, everyone must respect sanctity of vote, says ex-CEC VS Sampath

India has to learn not only from its own experience but also from the experience of others like for example postal balloting and how we can liberalise it since there is an increasing demand for it for various reasons, says Sampath.

Simantik Dowerah November 05, 2020 09:29:49 IST
US Election 2020: No candidate can declare results, everyone must respect sanctity of vote, says ex-CEC VS Sampath

Former chief election commissioner VS Sampath. Image courtesy Press Information Bureau

American voters will have to see out at least another night of anxiety, if not more, before they discover who will take the oath of office on 20 January, 2021, to occupy the Oval Office. With Democrat Joe Biden winning Michigan and Wisconsin, the path back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for President Donald Trump is getting harder than before despite his tweet on Wednesday announcing "A big WIN!". So much so that the Republican camp is now leaving no stone unturned in its quest for ways through the legal alleys of various states and by turning Twitter into a virtual battlefield to halt the Democratic march towards the next presidency.

Along with the Americans, as the world is glued to this real-life fight for US presidency, not in any degree less exciting than any Netflix political thriller, it is the brinkmanship of Trump that is putting every democratic edifice in the world's oldest democracy from its judiciary to its electoral process to test. Whether his unusual ways will be kryptonite to him will be known in hours or days if not weeks.

With the electoral process, the very oxygen for a thriving democracy now jarred by countless controversies in the US, former chief election commissioner VS Sampath, who oversaw the Lok Sabha election in 2014, in a chat with Firstpost, analysed how India staves off these challenges and what India can learn from the tumultuous US experience.

Edited excerpts follow:

The row over postal ballots in the US has reached such a point that it might soon land up in the country's Supreme Court. Is the weight of the postal ballots being diminished here? What are your thoughts on that?

That is what the president has said, that he's going to approach the Supreme Court. But then it is not clear on what aspect he is going to approach the Supreme Court. Basically, it is not as if the postal ballot is introduced for the first time in the US. It was there in the past. It was there in the last election also. (In the) last (US presidential) election (in 2016) also, 24 percent of the votes polled were through postal ballots. The postal ballot is there in a number of countries.

Today actually because of the pandemic more and more countries are liberalising the postal ballot so that people need not expose themselves to disease. So, we really do not know on what grounds he wants to approach the Supreme Court. The basic fact remains that the postal ballot is also a ballot.

Click here for US Election 2020 Results LIVE Updates

It has the same sanctity as the ballot which you cast when you go to a polling station. You cannot draw a distinction between a postal ballot and a polling booth ballot. That is the point which one must understand because the postal ballot is also accepted in law. Because it is accepted in law, this postal ballot facility is extended to some voters.

For the first time, we seem to be coming across a situation in the US because an incumbent president himself is not accepting a mode of voting like postal balloting which is done as per the laws of their own states.

Actually in this whole episode, as you see, the one aspect which comes out particularly glaring is when a category of people are allowed the facility of postal balloting they exercise their votes, somebody is saying 'No, no! Those votes should not be counted'. Now at this point of time saying that one will go to the Supreme Court against counting of postal votes violates the spirit and sanctity of the individual vote. Every vote is sacred.

Anyone or anything which militates against the sanctity or the validity of that one vote has to be resisted because it is against the very spirit of democracy. One vote can make a difference in electing the state representative Elector, that one vote indirectly can even affect the election of the president. So a vote is a vote. It is very sacred. Its sanctity has to be respected by everyone. You cannot bluntly dismiss this one vote or a few votes or a category of votes. That is the point one should keep in mind.

In terms of the electoral process, how far do you think the judiciary should be kept away from it?

If you take a country like India, in our Constitution itself the role of the judiciary is clearly defined when it comes to the electoral process. The judiciary comes into the picture in India only after the results are declared and an election petition is filed challenging the election. In ordinary circumstances, our courts do not interfere when the election process is on.

Generally, you invoke the jurisdiction of the judiciary only at the post-election stage, not during the conduct of the election unless there are very compelling situations.

But then the difference between India and several other countries, and particularly with the US, is that in India, the role of the Election Commission and the role of the election laws are all clearly defined in the Constitution itself including limiting the role of judiciary only to post-election, post-verdict, post results. So, it also depends on the laws of the country.

Due to the controversies that we saw during the run-up to the polls and now even in the counting of votes, it seems that the US which prescribes democracy to other nations and happens to be the oldest democracy is struggling to preserve its own democracy. In these circumstances what kind of messaging is going to the other countries of the world from the US?

Certainly, it is not going to be a very ennobling one, particularly when the counting is still going on and results are yet to be announced. In any election, there is an election authority. In the conduct of an election, the election authority plays a crucial role. It is the election authority who has to do the counting and declare the result.
No candidate, however highly placed he may be, can declare that he has won. It is only for the authority who is conducting the election to declare who has won in the election. That is a basic requirement in conducting the election. Any dilution of the authority or challenge to the authority of the election authority is against the principles of election management and election purity.

Since you brought in the Indian aspect earlier, I would like to hear from you a comparative analysis between the electoral process of India and the US. Does the US need a similar body like the Election Commission of India?

As far as elections in India are conducted, from the national level up to the polling station level, the Election Commission of India is responsible for the conduct of the election. Even at the polling station level how the electoral roll should be maintained, how the election personnel should be selected, trained and deployed in the polling station, who should be taken as election personnel, what role for the representatives of the political party during polling, counting, polling hours, ballot paper or electronic voting machine, everything is under the guidance, guidelines, rules and regulations prescribed by the Election Commission which is not the case in the US.

As you know, in the US there is no central election authority like the Election Commission of India to oversee the conduct of elections. They have got federal election commission which mainly overseas campaign finance for the elections. They are basically an expenditure control commission. They are not the election conducting commission as in India. In the US, the election is conducted by state authorities or district authorities, and you do not have distinct exclusive machinery for the conduct of elections like we have in India.

Next, even at the polling station level, mostly the people who conduct the election at polling stations are volunteers whereas in India these are all done by government employees who are subject to the administrative and disciplinary control of the Election Commission. That makes all the difference because there is uniformity in the entire country with regard to the conduct of the election. Whereas in the US, that kind of uniformity will not be there because each state, each local authority follows their own rules and regulations.

In the US, the conduct of the elections is left to the states. The governments at the state level, the governments at the county level conduct the elections. Sometimes even the counties will have their own rules and regulations regarding the conduct of the election.

Should there be something similar in the US like the Model Code of Conduct that we have in India?

That's actually a very good question. In our country since we are a more nascent democracy when compared to a country like the US or the UK from day one, the framers of our Constitution as well as the election authorities, the successive election commissions, realised the dangers from the party in power or the people who are in power exercising or wielding undue influence during the election.

So, when it comes to elections, one of the guiding principles of our Model Code of Conduct is to maintain a level playing field among different contenders in an Election.

That is what our Model Code of Conduct seeks to ensure.

Most of the issues raised in US Elections including the safeguards relating to casting and counting of postal ballots are all governed by clear instructions and guidelines in our election system.

Our laws are very clear, rules are very clear, the Election Commission guidelines are very clear.

Like for example in India, you will never come across a situation of misuse of postal ballot or serious allegations about the use of the ballot paper because all these are governed by elaborate instructions given by the central election authority.

It has evolved over a period of time which, in fact, has evolved mostly in consultation with political parties because when we evolve any new procedure [sic], we hold discussions with political parties, take their views, and then we put them into practice.

From what we are witnessing in the US, are there any lessons for India?

This is also a very good question because no one can claim to be all-knowing. We have to learn not only from our experience but also from the experience of others.

There is a demand in India also to liberalise postal balloting for various reasons. Like there are people who are not able to be present in the constituency on the day of the poll and likely to be away from the constituency. Or, a situation like the present pandemic where we have to protect older people, senior citizens. They can't stand in a queue mixing along with others and expose themselves to the infection.

Naturally, there is a need for providing this facility to more and more — more than what is provided in our existing rules and regulations. But while doing that we have to be careful, we have to check whether adequate safeguards are prescribed.

There is also demand quite rightly in the US by the other contending candidate Biden that till the last vote, counting must go on. What does it mean? Every vote matters. In India there is an instance in the Rajasthan Assembly election some time back, an election was decided by a margin of just one vote. With that one vote, the person, who was the state party president, lost his chance of becoming MLA and consequently the chief minister.

So, every vote is sacred. When the vote is sacred it is the responsibility of everyone to see that the sanctity of the vote is maintained.

What should be the role of citizens in this kind of circumstance when at least a section of them is in a state of helplessness because of the state of affairs in the top echelons in a democratic setup?

Certainly not. You should see the media in the US. Cutting across party lines, the entire media has risen as one person. Simply because he (Donald Trump) is the president of the United States, perhaps the most powerful person in the whole world, I don't think the media was deferring to his views.

There (in the US) you have a very vibrant public opinion which is represented by the media. Within minutes the media has come out saying this is not what is to be done, this is not what is expected of him (Trump), he cannot declare a result when the election authorities have not declared a result. That is the vibrancy of public opinion.
No one is unduly scared of authority. Nobody is unduly worried about the stature of the person. They have the courage to call a spade spade whoever he may be, whatever his position. So far people have been following a very mature outlook where mostly media and public opinion (in the US) have been keeping a watch on the conduct of the election and there is no problem.

Media only represents people. Media represents public opinion. That is what is important in the ultimate analysis.


Updated Date:

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

also read

'America is back, ready to lead the world': Joe Biden presents security and foreign policy team

'America is back, ready to lead the world': Joe Biden presents security and foreign policy team

The US president-elect presented his picks for secretary of state, national security advisor, homeland security secretary, intelligence chief, UN ambassador, and climate change envoy

Head of obscure US agency comes under pressure to let Joe Biden's presidential transition proceed

Head of obscure US agency comes under pressure to let Joe Biden's presidential transition proceed

GSA head Emily Murphy has yet to certify Biden as the election winner. When she does, it will free up money for the transition and clear the way for Biden’s team to begin placing transition personnel at federal agencies

Joe Biden formally designated apparent winner of 3 Nov election by GSA administrator

Joe Biden formally designated apparent winner of 3 Nov election by GSA administrator

Most of Donald Trump’s Republican allies had stood by his side as he attempted to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 3 November election