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Exchange Program Offers Insight on U.S. Elections for Indian Diplomats

November 9, 2016

By Davey Kim

When President Obama made his first visit to India in 2010, he declared the U.S.-India relationship as “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.” It’s no surprise, then, that Indians—with much at stake in the outcome under a new U.S. presidential administration—have paid close attention to the 2016 election campaign that ended yesterday with a win for Donald Trump as the next president.

In the midst of primary season in June 2016, The Asia Foundation hosted its 10th group of young Indian diplomats, providing a first-hand look at the U.S. electoral system as part of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs U.S. Foreign Policy and Domestic Observation tour program.

2015 delegation with New York Times Politics Editor Gerry Mullany.

2015 delegation with New York Times Politics Editor Gerry Mullany.

For the past decade, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has selected a group of young foreign service officers to participate annually in the month-long and prized exchange program. The program consists of two complementary components: an intensive, two-week U.S. foreign policy course at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, followed by a two-week study tour which is designed to deepen the diplomats’ understanding of the United States. Through a series of meetings and discussions with a cross-section of Americans in diverse regions of the country, this program provides an up-close look at domestic and foreign policy issues every year. Since its inception, it has coincided with three presidential and two midterm election cycles.

As the program’s designer and coordinator for three consecutive years, I had the opportunity to observe and facilitate hundreds of conversations on the many issues facing the U.S. democratic process between the visiting Indian diplomats and relevant American policy actors, including elected officials and their staff, journalists, academics, and advocacy groups.

Of course, some of the idiosyncrasies of the U.S. system were discussed, such as the dominance of a two-party system, and the disproportionate importance of electoral battlegrounds or “swing states.” These points aside, below are key takeaways from the many ensuing policy discussions and from the comparative insights contributed by the participating diplomats.

Voter turnout in the U.S. is relatively low compared to the rest of the world. One frequent theme—especially in meetings with election analysts and academics—is the low voter turnout in U.S. elections compared to many other countries. The Pew Research Center shows that the U.S. sits below most of its peers at 31st among 35 OECD countries, with only 53.6 percent turnout among eligible voters in the 2012 presidential election, and according to early figures, a turnout rate of 55 percent in the 2016 U.S. election. Contrast this with India’s 66.4 percent of eligible voter turnout for their 2014 general election. The diplomats often cite widespread discontent against the India’s incumbent political party for higher turnout, and conversations about U.S. political participation often cite lack of faith in the electoral process as the most likely factor of low turnout.

There is a unique debate in the U.S., as compared with other countries, on how elections are financed and potentially influenced. The issue of fairness in the electoral process is often raised in conversations about the role of moneyed interests in politics. In visits to various institutions, such as with state attorneys general, the topic of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, was often raised. The implications of lifting limitations on political spending led to an estimated record $7 billion of spending in the 2012 presidential campaign, and the question about the influence of money in politics.

2016 delegation with governor of Wyoming, Matt Mead.

2016 delegation with governor of Wyoming, Matt Mead.

Through conversations with fair-election advocacy groups such as Common Cause, the diplomats observed the differences between the U.S. and India’s governing bodies on elections: the U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Election Commission of India, respectively. Though India’s most recent general election saw its own record spending, the Election Commission of India is described as having much more rigorous checks and monitoring measures for campaign spending. These include enforced spending caps and specially assigned election monitors to scrutinize money flows.

In addition, the Election Commission of India as an institution is characterized as more independent, centralized, and coordinated. The diplomats learned very quickly that this was not the case in the U.S., where election administration is highly decentralized and delegated largely to local governments.

Meetings with local journalists in states like Missouri, for example, revealed a history of voting system flaws and highly partisan state-level policies that have sparked controversy over what many considered to be voter suppression. The 2015 program included a stop at the Congressional offices in North Carolina’s 9th district, where the manipulation of electoral boundaries to favor one party over another (known as “gerrymandering”) is currently a subject of controversy.

By comparison, India has yet to witness a gerrymandering controversy of its own. In fact, its constitutional provisions mandate a Delimitation Commission to demarcate the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies based on census data, while allowing for input from other non-government stakeholders, largely mitigating any possibility of gerrymandering.

“Politics is local.” The diplomats are often struck by how smaller, local actors can have outsized significance on the highest levels of national government in the U.S. An important feature of the program includes destinations less-known and less-traveled by foreign visitors such as Wyoming, Nebraska, and other less densely populated areas often overlooked in electoral politics as “fly-over country.”

Here, they witness the political clout of rural and agricultural communities through meetings with local politicians, and civil society groups such as local chapters of the American Farm Bureau who have been able to flex their muscles against national-level legislation on issues like climate change.

In addition, the U.S. electoral structure grants smaller states, with characteristically dispersed populations, statistically higher political representation per single voter. As a result of its design, 62 out of 100 members of the United States Senate represent only one quarter of the country’s population (from 2013 data).

Discussions over the Electoral College also show that a voter casting a presidential ballot in the smaller state of Wyoming has a voting power of three and a half times that of a voter in the more populous state of Florida. For this reason, among many, the Electoral College has fallen out of favor among Americans, even though any binding reform toward a “one person, one vote” system does not appear likely any time in the near future.

The statement “politics is local” certainly holds true as well in India, as rural political participation often outstrips that in urban areas. However, given the aforementioned rigor of election regulation in India and its implementation of census data into electoral boundaries, rural population votes are not prone to carrying disproportionate weight as they have in the U.S.

Upon completion, many program participants comment that the “domestic” and “America-specific” site visits have helped them gain a more nuanced understanding of the determinants of U.S. foreign policy. In this way, this exchange program is an efficient and effective way to gain a real feeling of the U.S. policymaking process, one which these young diplomats take with them as future leaders in the Indian Foreign Service.

Davey Kim is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: India
Related programs: Elections, Exchanges, Strengthen Governance
Related topics: U.S. Election, Young Diplomats U.S. Study Program

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