India’s elections need a ‘MOTA’ reform

India’s political diversity is the most unique in the world

Praveen Chakravarty
April 16, 2023

Praveen Chakravarty. Credit: DH Illustration

Praveen Chakravarty. Credit: DH Illustration
Karnataka state elections are upon us. In a large number of constituencies, the Karnataka voter will have three parties as the main choices on their ballot – Congress, BJP and JDS
Let us say, a voter Nagalakshmi in Mandya chooses to vote for the JDS. Does that mean she disapproves of both the BJP and the Congress? Is Nagalakshmi voting for JDS because she does not want to vote for the other two parties? Or does Nagalakshmi approve of the JDS because she feels it represents her interests the best? If JDS and Congress were in an electoral alliance and there are only Congress and BJP candidates in Mandya, will Nagalakshmi now vote for the alliance even though a JDS candidate is not on her ballot, or will she switch her vote to the BJP? The answers to these questions form the foundation of India’s electoral democracy and determine the government we get.
As I have argued previously, India’s political diversity is the most unique in the world. Some 643 parties contested the 2019 election, and 36 of them are represented in today’s parliament. Multiplicity of political parties and more than two legitimate choices for the average voter are the norm in Indian elections, unlike the two-party system in most other democracies. In such a diverse society, where a plethora of interest and identity groups are competing for representation as well as protection from oppression, voters may have varying motivations. Some may prefer only the party that stands for them strongly, some others may prefer any party that will not treat them shabbily, and some others may prefer more than one party equally. But when the voter has to choose just one of the many parties on her ballot, it is assumed that she has automatically rejected the others. Which is perhaps not true, since she may prefer more than one party but is forced to make only one choice.
This is the danger in the much touted ‘Opposition unity’ strategy of all non-BJP parties coming together for an electoral alliance. It inherently assumes that Nagalakshmi, in our example, inevitably disapproves of the BJP, but will transfer her vote seamlessly to a Congress-JDS alliance. Approval for the JDS may or may not mean disapproval of the BJP. Or what if Nagalakshmi is fine with either JDS or Congress but is very clear that she does not want the BJP. She does not have a way to express this choice. India’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system of choosing just one party among the many choices is flawed for such complex voting decisions that are innate to a diverse society and polity.

Now, suppose Nagalakshmi can choose all the parties she approves of, rather than being forced to choose just one. In other words, if she prefers, Nagalakshmi can choose both JDS and Congress, or only the JDS. This system, called ‘approval voting’, is a well-researched voting methodology that is used in elections with multiple credible choices, such as in the United Nations, internal party primaries in the United States, and sometimes in the election of the Pope at the Vatican.

If voters can choose as many parties they approve of and leave out the ones they strongly disapprove, then it can lead to a far more acceptable outcome for most voters than the current FPTP system, which can be divisive. Approval voting tends to elect a winner that fewest number of voters disapprove of, rather than a winner that the largest number of voters approve of.

Let me explain with an example. In a constituency with 100 voters, say 40 people disapprove of both the BJP and Congress and approve only of the JDS. Thirty approve the Congress but strongly disapprove of JDS and the remaining 30 approve the BJP but also disapprove of JDS. A FPTP system will produce JDS as the winner while approval voting would produce either the Congress or the BJP as the winner. This is because more people disapprove the JDS (60) than the Congress or the BJP (30). This leads to a more harmonious outcome in a pluralistic society since it ensures that the party that is hated more does not win on the back of the support of a concentrated few.

Approval voting is the mirror image of NOTA (None of the Above). NOTA allows voters to say that they do not approve of anyone on the ballot. Why not let voters also express their choice for many candidates and leave out only the ones they disapprove of entirely. Approval voting can be thought of as MOTA – Many of the Above. In our example, if 40 voters approve JDS but 60 voters disapprove, then the winner will be Congress or BJP, not JDS.

FPTP and approval voting can produce dramatically different incentives and outcomes in a multipolar electoral democracy. Ranked choice voting, in which voters rank their choices, can also be a good option in a multiparty ballot, but it may be too complicated for the average Indian voter. Approval voting is simple for the voter to know that she can choose all the parties she likes and not just one.

The idea of Opposition unity to prevent a split in the non-BJP votes assumes that if political parties come together, their voters will also vote together. In a single choice FPTP system, it is a flawed and risky assumption. Instead, a ‘MOTA’ based approval voting system can unite people that are against a particular party, by way of choosing more than one party. For a vastly plural society like India, with its many identity, class and geographical cleavages, approval voting will drive parties to be less hated and more liked, to garner the most approvals. Which can lead to greater social cohesion. More than NOTA, India needs MOTA!

(Praveen Chakravarty is a Congressman curious about correlations, causes & consequences. @pravchak)


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