Materialising Democracy

Mukulika Banerjee, Anthropology, UCL
This week, reportage of the mid term US elections seems to devote almost equal coverage to the Democrat re-capture of the Congress and the close race to finish in the Senate as it did to malfunctioning electronic voting machines. Indiana and Ohio were singled out for the most unreliable machines and Florida was reported to have reverted to paper ballots. Thus, who people voted for seems to be hinge crucially on how, literally, they cast their vote. The materiality of the voting process, namely ballot boxes, counting procedures, polling stations do not usually feature in election analysis, but when they do, we can assume that something is either wrong or novel. In the case of the US elections, it was both.
In the United States, Electronic Voting Machines were introduced recently and mainly in response to the 2002 federal law called the ‘Help America Vote Act’ which called on states to update their equipment in time for the 2006 elections. This was in response to the debacle with malfunctioning electoral technologies of the earlier Presidential elections of 2000. The stories of ‘hanging chads’ caused by the old fashioned lever and punch machines used then had not only discredited the election of George W. as President, but had damaged the credibility of American democracy all over the world. As a result this time several states in the US used electronic voting machines for the first time and voters were able (in theory) to cast their vote through touch screens or by marking ballot papers which were read by an optical scanner and counted automatically. But rather than inspiring confidence in the voting process their introduction was met with trepidation and anxiety. A number of candidates, officials and campaign groups expressed their reservations about the lack of a paper trail, the dangers of hacking, the inevitability of technical glitches and the lack of proper cards to use these machines. A recent study did not help the general concern by showing that it was easier to rig an electronic voting machine than it was a slot machine in Las Vegas. Theories even abound about the anti-US political agendas of the company that supplies these machines. As a result recent polls indicated that only a quarter of the US population fell fully confident that their vote will be correctly recorded and were urged by their leaders to resort to the old fashioned (paper) postal ballot.
Working as I do on democracy in India, this is bemusing to say the least. Electronic voting machines have been used in India without any hitches at all for the past five years. In 2004 the entire national election was conducted using them. This covered an electorate of 671,487,930 voters, a large proportion of whom are illiterate. The Election Commission of India (an independent and non-partisan body) employed 4 million people just to conduct this mammoth operation. No one complained about the technology.
EVM from India.jpg
Source: M. Banerjee
This makes one pause for thought. Is there something about the techne of democracy itself that we bears thinking through. An electronic voting machine in India is a simple device and is not much more than a well designed circuit board. It displays a list of candidates, the symbol of the party they represent (for those who cannot read) and the vote is cast by pressing the button in front of the chosen party or candidate. Counting is efficient as the results of each machine are aggregated according to constituencies and results are available within a few hours of the polls being closed.
Was the problem in the current elections in the US an example of how not to use technology? Could the US not have deployed simpler, easier to use machines? Is the decision to digitally link the machines up mainly to ensure quicker delivery of results a thoroughly misplaced priority given it panders more to the media than its voters? Is this not what makes it susceptible to hackers? Could not something less intimidating than touch screens, which the large elderly volunteer polling officials have confessed to be nervous about, been used? Is it not one of the main duties of a democratic state, in this case the richest and most technologically advanced of all, not lie first and foremost in conducting free and fair elections? Is the US above learning how to conduct elections from other democracies who do so successfully without mishaps? Could the world’s most powerful democracy not learn from the world’s largest democracy?


  1. While voting machines and their respective technology have been the subject of quite a bit of debate, it may be worthwhile to consider a few additional factors that prevent the United States from performing and behaving like the world’s largest democracy could – by setting examples, sharing best practices and learning from others.
    First and foremost, based on the above description of the voting system in place in India, there are several key differences between India’s approach and that of the US: India appears to control the electronic voting process at a national level, and use a single machine design, while the US handles this at the local level, which encourages thousands of different approaches and a lack of coordination and scale. The design of the Indian board sounds nearly mechanical as well, which provides the reassurance of a physical button or switch to activate rather than the completely digital US design. In short, countries with centralized control of “bridge” technology systems tend to deploy and encourage leapfrog technology behavior more effectively. Bravo, India!
    Secondly, the voting machine debacle has less to do with democracy and everything to do with the United States being the world’s largest capitalist democracy. As is the case with many government contracts, the relationship between Diebold, the manufacturer of the voting machines and exclusive contractor, politicians and the “mighty” greenback has been very close, a bit too close, over the past few years (see Rule number one in a capitalist democracy – if there is money to be made, make it, irrespective of whether the outcome will benefit anyone in the long run.
    Thirdly, without having lived in the United States in the past few years, it is difficult to understand the current frame of mind in which the general populace finds itself. People have been disappointed time and again by their trust in technology as it relates to government, government organizations and officials (allegations of fraud in the last US presidential election, complete failure of communications technology between government agencies during hurricane Katrina, unbelievable footage of members of US troops questioning the lack of proper equipment and technology in Iraq, etc.)Why should this be any different than other botched technology failures seen in the past, especially given that allegations of the voting machine contact itself being rigged? This is an issue of lack of trust fueled by corruption and incompetence.
    And last but not least, is it in the US DNA to learn from, accept and give credit to anyone for anything? Heck no. That would be to admit weakness and the US never admits weakness. Weakness leads to defeat and that is the antithesis of what the US is about. The US cultural archetype is all about winning, the hero, being the underdog and coming out on top, the American Dream, following instinct, etc., all of which have been important individualistic personality traits of a nation in the process of the construction of a capitalist democracy. And while it is often painful for more “mature” nations to watch this period of general “angst” in technology related to government, the “cowboyesque, shoot ’em up style” of debate is, in essence, capitalist democracy at its best.

  2. One of the big issues in the US is the decentralization. Our constitution is federalist in many ways, and we don’t have one authority that runs elections. This goes back to our early days as a nation in formation, wishing to cast off the yoke of George III etc etc. So it’s basically impossible to impose uniform standards. We also have many local and state elections when national elections don’t occur, and that’s particularly a point in which centralized election procedures would be resented.
    Though the US surely displays arrogance, capitalism, the American Dream etc., I do think that the election problem is better understood in its broader historical context than as a reflection of US culture and politics of merely the last few decades.

  3. Sure they can use machines, but think is then there will be the same excitement of elections??.

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