Why India Needs to Change its Electoral Voting System

13 September 2017
It is increasingly becoming clear that the first-past-the-post system of voting is fraught with serious problems.
It is increasingly becoming clear that the first-past-the-post system of voting is fraught with serious problems.

“The best electoral system is the one that straightforwardly and most accurately reflects the preferences of voters,” the legal scholar Donald Horowitz noted in his 2003 seminal essay on electoral systems. But there is no definite answer as to which system fits that bill. India and the United Kingdom follow the Westminster electoral model, in which the voters elect their representatives respectively to the Lok Sabha and its counterpart, the House of Commons. The voting procedure as well as the election of candidates is based on the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system—electors vote for one candidate in one constituency among all those contesting the elections from that constituency. The candidate with the highest number of votes, irrespective of the margin of victory or percentage of votes polled, is declared the winner.

In recent years, both countries have questioned the merits of the FPTP procedure. In 2011, the UK conducted a referendum on whether to retain the voting system—68 percent voted in its favour. (However, the voter turnout for the referendum was only 41 percent, which means a majority did not participate in the decision-making process.) In India, too, the FPTP system is under scrutiny this year. On 22 April, the parliamentary standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice—headed by Anand Sharma, a Congress member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha—issued a press release announcing an examination of the issue of electoral reforms and alternative voting systems. In late August, the Indian Express reported that the committee had sent a questionnaire on electoral reforms to all parties and the Election Commission. According to the news report, the questionnaire stated that “apprehensions are now being raised that in recent years the FPTP system is not the best suited” to India.

The FPTP has several advantages due to which it is considered to be the simplest electoral system. The first advantage is clarity—it is an easy system to understand, the choices for the voters are clear, and the counting is also simple and straightforward. As soon as the votes are counted, the winner is immediately evident. The system also guarantees one representative for each constituency who is accountable to his electorate, which is not necessarily the case in other voting systems. A third advantage is that candidates get to know their relative support in the constituency, unlike other parties where electors vote for a party, and not for individual candidates.

In a country such as India, with near one billion voters, the ease of administering voting in this system almost makes it the most viable model to follow. For a long time, I was a strong advocate of the first-past-the-post system because I believed it to be the most efficient in the Indian context. However, I felt compelled to reconsider my position after the 2014 general elections, in which the Bahujan Samaj Party—which was the third-largest party in terms of the national vote share, with 20 percent votes in Uttar Pradesh and 4.2 percent at the national level—did not get a single seat in the Lok Sabha. On the other hand, parties with lower vote shares won a considerable number of seats—for instance, despite winning 3.9 percent of the votes, the Trinamool Congress won 34 seats. The following year, a similar phenomenon occurred in the UK—the UK Independence Party obtained only one seat in the general elections despite being the third-largest party in terms of vote share, with nearly 13 percent of the total votes being cast in its favour. Such results are possible in the FPTP system because a candidate is elected solely on the basis of whether she receives the highest number of votes, and not on the proportion of votes polled in favour of the different candidates.

It is increasingly becoming clear that the first-past-the-post system of voting is fraught with serious problems. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, despite the “Modi wave,” only 37 percent of the elected candidates, or 201 MPs, obtained a majority of the votes in the elections. In the 2009 elections, only 22 percent, or 120 MLAs, had secured a majority. At the legislative assembly level, across all states, an average of 44.5 percent of the MLAs have secured more than 50 percent of the vote share in their constituencies.

SY Quraishi is the former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder – The Great Indian Election. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at Trivedi Political Data Centre, Ashoka University.

Keywords: election results 2014 Lok Sabha elections electoral reform electoral voting systems first-past-the-post proportional representation