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?