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Indian and American citizens share certain democratic rights, and we also share the fundamental democratic responsibility to vote. With U.S. elections coming up this year, I’ve been giving some thought to voting. By that, I don’t mean thinking about whether or not I’ll vote (I will), but more general issues like voting participation rates and absentee voting.
In the U.S., absentee voting has long been an accepted practice, largely through postal votes, although some states are experimenting with policies to encourage voting by creating more options that don’t require a voter to show up at a given place on a given day. I know absentee voting isn’t accepted everywhere. In my last country of assignment, Zimbabwe, the issue was a very heated one. Many Zimbabweans left the country because of political repression, so naturally the opposition strongly favored allowing Zimbabweans in the diaspora to vote. The ruling party adamantly opposed it. In some countries, however, efforts to facilitate voting for citizens living overseas are much more direct than those of the U.S. In my second last country of assignment, Gabon, I witnessed French citizens lining up in their embassy to cast ballots in French elections. I can just imagine the logistical challenge we would face if thousands of Americans resident in Andhra Pradesh came to the Consulate in Hyderabad on November 6 to exercise their constitutional rights!
I was interested to see that India’s voter participation rates are quite similar to rates in U.S. presidential elections—and we’re both at the bottom end of a list of major democracies on voting rates, according to Wikipedia: Voter turnout - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The same article shows a surprising difference between the U.S. and India in the breakdown of voting rates according to socio-economic status. In the U.S., voting rates rise as the level of education rises, while in India, those with college educations vote less than those without, and those who have studied at a post-graduate level have the lowest rates of all. I’m not sure data from just one election really says very much—but it’s interesting in any case.
In the U.S., we have national elections every two years, but only hold presidential elections every four years. (All seats in the House of Representatives and a third of Senate seats are up for election every two years.) Rates of voter participation are sharply higher in presidential election years, rising from roughly 37 percent of the voting age population to over 57 percent. Rates of voter participation have been increasing in the U.S. since 1996, and the 2008 election reportedly had the highest eligible voter participation rate since 1960.
It will be interesting to see whether that trend to higher voting rates continues in 2012. I hope so. Reported U.S. public dissatisfaction with government, which I discussed in a blog post last year, should motivate citizens to do their part to make government respond to their needs. If we don’t fulfill our civic responsibility, we have only ourselves to blame if those elected don’t reflect our views.
As government employees, my colleagues and I are subject to strict restrictions on partisan political activities, but we are fully authorized and personally energized to encourage our fellow citizens to participate in our political process. We had an in-house session on absentee voting for Americans working at the Consulate the other day, and I was pleased to see how interested my colleagues were in the subject. For Americans interested in absentee voting from India, there’s information on our consulate website http://hyderabad.usconsulate.gov/, but all you really need to know is at another site: Federal Voting Assistance Program. One important point to note for American citizens: the Consulate is able to transmit your ballot through the U.S. mail for you. (Even though voting is voluntary and filing tax returns is mandatory for Americans, we can only do this for voting, not for tax filing.)