Why India Needs to Change its Electoral Voting System

It is increasingly becoming clear that the first-past-the-post system of voting is fraught with serious problems. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
13 September, 2017

“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.

These instances reflect the main shortcoming of the FPTP system—the lack of legitimacy of political parties who are voted to a majority of seats by a minority of voters. In India’s electoral history, the Congress party’s politician PK Khanna recorded the victory with the lowest ever vote share—in 1967, Khanna was elected to the Shahjahanpur constituency in Uttar Pradesh with just 15.6 percent of the votes. Even in the Congress wave in the 1984 general elections after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the party could not get a majority of the votes—despite winning a historic 404 of 533, or 75 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the party only received 49.1 percent of the vote share. In such a scenario, the will of the actual majority of voters is substituted by the will of a minority of voters.

Another consequence of the winner-takes-all nature of the FPTP system is that it rewards parties who target and treat preferentially specific segments of the electorate, or “vote banks,” rather than the majority of electors. The system thus rewards divisive electoral strategies and encourages parties to field tainted candidates.

One way to address these concerns of this voting system would be to hold a run-off election—a second round of elections between the two candidates with the highest number of votes, which is followed in the French presidential elections. However, it is not feasible to conduct two rounds of voting in India, owing to the magnitude and complexity of the exercise required. Imagine going back to militancy-affected areas for a second time within a month—one peaceful election itself is subject to grave risk to human lives, of the voters, polling staff and security forces.

In order to overcome the shortcoming of the first-past-the-post system, some critics advocate for the proportional representation (PR) system of voting. In the PR system, every party gets a share of seats proportional to the share of votes it secures.

The PR system has many variants, such as the open-list and closed-list systems. In these, each voter is invited to indicate a preference or a ranking of several candidates within a list submitted by a party. Each party is granted seats in proportion to the number of votes it receives. The candidates within the list are then elected according to the percentage of votes polled by the party—for instance, if a party obtains a 15-percent vote share, and elections are being conducted for 200 seats, the top 30 candidates, or 15 percent of the total number of seats from the party’s list, will be elected. As a result, the constituencies under the list system are multi-member—multiple candidates will be elected from one constituency—with a number of seats per constituency allotted according to its demography or other physical characteristics. However, the system requires all candidates to be nominated by a political party and does not allow for independent candidates.

In the open-list variant of the system, voters can choose to not only vote for a party but also rank candidates within that party’s declared list of candidates. In the closed-list variant, voters opt for the party as a whole rather than vote for specific candidates.

However, the proportional representation voting system presents issues as well. The system might make it difficult for parties to form the government, because the party with the maximum number of votes rarely obtains more than 30 to 35 percent of the vote share. As a result, a dominant party would likely have to form a coalition with other large parties. This has been necessary in Indian politics for the last 25 years even under the present system.

Another concern is that under the list system, the parties determine which candidates are elected by placing them at the top of the list. The system thus guarantees that influential party members get easily elected. In such a system, candidates would perhaps focus on wooing their party leaders instead of the voters. This could also reinforce various forms of an elite capture of election tickets—at the whims of the party leadership, the tickets could be issued to family members or particular party leaders, or to candidates on the basis of their caste, linguistic, or religious communities.

Owing to the underlying problems with both the FPTP and the PR system of voting, a mixed model that combines the advantages of both systems is worth consideration. Different variants of the mixed method are followed in several countries including Germany and Nepal. While these mixed models, too, may present problems of implementation in the Indian political and geographical context, variations of these mixed voting systems may be the most suitable alternatives to the FPTP in India.

In 1949, Germany adopted one such a method, known as the mixed-member proportional system of voting. Its parliament has 299 constituencies and 598 seats. On the polling day, every voter casts two votes—one for a candidate in the constituency and the other for a party. The result for the first votes is determined by the FPTP system—299 seats are thus filled by the voters directly electing a candidate who wins the most number of votes in the constituency. The aim of the first vote is to enable voters to personally know their representative. The second vote allows the elector to vote for a party. It is this vote that determines the power of parties in the parliament. Based on this, the remaining 299 seats in the parliament are filled by parties in such a way that the proportion of votes polled in the second round of votes are reflected in the total 598 representatives of Bundestag—the lower house of the German parliament. For instance, if a party wins 20 seats under the FPTP system and a ten-percent vote share in the second round of voting, it is given 40 seats from the remaining 299—ensuring that it has 60 seats, or ten percent, of all 598 seats.

The German model, which accommodates both directly electing candidates to constituencies and allotting representation to political parties based on their vote share, also has its disadvantages. The chief among these is that any party that does not win either a five-percent vote-share or three of 299 FPTP seats does not enter the parliament. As a result, the choice of voters who voted for such candidates or parties is completely ignored.

Adopting this system in India would require either halving the number of constituencies or doubling the size of the Lok Sabha. The former is not feasible in India’s political context given that the ratio of constituencies to voters in India is already vastly disproportionate to that of other countries. For instance, the House of Commons comprises 650 MPs, as opposed to the Lok Sabha’s strength of 543—thus, a British MP has an average of approximately 72,000 electors, whereas an Indian MP has 1.5 million. Halving the constituencies would imply that one elected candidate would represent three million electors, which would further limit the access and accountability between an MP and her constituency.

In India, increasing the strength of the Lok Sabha has been proposed in the past. The former president Pranab Mukherjee raised the issue during a seminar on economic reforms and electoral issues in April 2017, and various parliamentarians have previously suggested increasing the strength of the Lok Sabha by 181 seats, or one-third of its current strength, to introduce reservation for women in the house. In fact, a great advantage of this system is the opportunity it provides to introduce reservation for women in parliament, by keeping a quota for women on the list of candidates to be elected by the proportional representation system. My conversations with members of multiple political parties have indicated that the opposition to the reservation is largely due to an unwillingness to give up their existing Lok Sabha seats. The issue has seen no political will or traction—I am personally aware that the reasons for this include roadblocks by parliamentarians on issues such as the lack of seating space in the Lok Sabha.

A mixed system is also in use in Nepal—its model, which will be implemented in the upcoming election in November and December, is known as the parallel system. Unlike the mixed-member proportional system, in the parallel system, voters effectively participate in two separate elections for a single chamber using two different systems. There are two different ballot papers, one each for the FPTP and PR voting systems, whereas in Germany, there is one ballot paper with a separate column for each system. Of the 275 members in Nepal’s House of Representatives—its counterpart to the Lok Sabha—165 members are elected through the FPTP system and 110 through the PR system. But unlike the MMP system, the results of the seats following the PR system are allotted only in proportion to those seats, and not in proportion to the entire 275 seats. Therefore, the results in one election have little or no impact on the results of the other. Adopting such a model in India would once again require a change in the strength of the parliament, or the demarcation of constituencies.

A 2017 report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance noted that the PR system is the most popular in the world, with 83 countries following it. According to its website, the International IDEA is an intergovernmental organisation that supports sustainable democracy worldwide. The report notes that it is especially popular in Europe, where 34 countries—nearly 67 percent—have adopted it. The FPTP system is second, with 61 countries across the world employing it. The parallel system is the third most popular one, and is followed in 21 countries.

What will it take to make the largest democracy of the world also the greatest? Of the various systems, the PR system seems to offer the best possibilities—which is also why it is the most popular system in the world. However, the proportional representation systems lack a certain level of clarity—after all, an alternative system should also aim to provide a distinct choice of the candidate to a voter that is achieved under the first-past-the-post system. To accommodate for this, India could invent its own mixed model, which would fit its political and cultural specificities. A dose of proportional representation would avoid the complete sidelining of important political forces. It would also push parties to collaborate in coalition and alliances, rather than enable them to convert minority of votes into majority of seats.

What matters most is that electoral systems ensure the will of the voters and the legitimacy of the leaders. To this end, perhaps the strength of the Lok Sabha could be doubled and the German model without its threshold could be considered—the logistics of seating capacity cannot be allowed to come in the way of a more democratic and efficient voting system. Or, closer home, the Nepali model too could work—the elections later this year could provide an opportunity to observe how it would work.

With the flaws in FPTP increasingly becoming exposed, the time to look at alternative models has come. Now that the parliamentary committee has set in motion this serious debate, one hopes that the electoral system itself would be taken up as a key reform. Moreover, considering that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pressed electoral reforms as a priority political agenda—addressing issues such as transparency of political funding and simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and state legislative assembles—he should not miss this opportunity to reform the electoral system.