How the World Votes: India’s Election and Access to Polling Places

This Teaching Idea is the first in a new Facing History series, “How the World Votes.” Each installment will look at one aspect of how elections are organized in different countries around the world, with the goal of giving students fresh insight into how their own representatives are elected. This Teaching Idea focuses on access to voting by looking at the recent elections in India—the largest democratic elections in history—as well as voting in the United States. Look for more installments of “How the World Votes” throughout the 2019–2020 school year.

Overview

Democracy doesn’t get much simpler than one person, one vote. But what happens when that one person is a hermit living alone in a jungle temple surrounded by lions, leopards and cobras, miles from the nearest town?

In India, the election comes to him.1

The results of India’s most recent elections were announced on May 23, 2019, showing that the incumbent president, Narendra Modi, won in a landslide. India is the world’s largest democracy, and organizing a general election in a country with over 900 million eligible voters is an enormous feat, especially given that the Indian government is required by law to erect a polling station within 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) of every voter in the country, no matter how remote their dwelling.

This Teaching Idea explores ideas around access to voting by looking at distance to polling stations as a barrier to voting and India’s commitment to ensuring polling places are close to every voter.

  1. How Important Is Voting to Democracy?

    Begin with a “silent brainstorm” on the reasons why people may not vote. In the middle of a chalkboard or whiteboard in your class, write the question: What are the reasons why people might not vote?

    Distribute chalk or whiteboard markers to your students. Ask them to come up to the board and write down their answers. They can write as much as they want and draw connections between ideas, but they should remain silent while they write.

    After you have generated ideas on the board, discuss what students wrote down. Then, ask your students:

    • What effect can it have on a democracy if people are unable or choose not to vote?
    • Is a country more democratic if more people vote?

    Leave the writing on the board so that you can revisit the brainstorm at the end of this Teaching Idea.

  2. How Can Distance Be a Barrier to Voting?

    In any election around the world, there are people who are eligible to vote but don’t. In the 2018 US midterm elections, about 50% of those eligible to vote actually voted. There are many reasons why people might not vote in an election, but one of them is that polling places are sometimes inconvenient for voters to reach.

    Play the NPR piece Volunteers Offer Rides to Help People Get to the Polls to Vote [2:25]. Tell your students that the piece refers to the 2018 midterm elections in the United States. After listening, discuss the following questions with your students:

    • How can living farther from a polling station make it harder to vote?
    • What groups of people might find it more difficult to travel long distances to polling stations? Why?
    • What are other barriers besides distance that can make it difficult for people to vote?
  3. What Is India’s Commitment to Accessible Voting?

    Begin by explaining to your students that India, the world’s largest democracy, recently held elections in which the incumbent president’s political party, the BJP, won in a landslide. Indian elections are complex, and this Teaching Idea focuses on only one aspect: voter’s access to polling places.

    Tell your students that they are going to learn about how polling is organized in India by reading an excerpt and video from the New York Times article What It Takes to Pull Off India’s Gargantuan Election. They should write down:

    Read your students the first few lines from the article:

    Democracy doesn’t get much simpler than one person, one vote. But what happens when that one person is a hermit living alone in a jungle temple surrounded by lions, leopards and cobras, miles from the nearest town?

    In India, the election comes to him.2

    Then, play the video from the article, India’s Elections Last 39 Days. Here’s Why [2:28]. Discuss with your students what they wrote down while they watched.

    Finally, revisit the “silent brainstorm” from the first activity. Ask your students:

    Note: If you would like to provide your students with more information about how the elections are organized, you can show them the interactive resource The World’s Largest Election, Explained from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

    • anything they find interesting,
    • anything they find surprising,
    • and any questions it raises.
      • Should your country adopt a rule similar to India’s, requiring polling stations to be within a certain distance of each voter? Would this encourage more people to vote?
      • Are there other points that you wrote down that would require other solutions? Besides access to polling stations, what else can governments do to ensure that elections are legitimate?

Extensions

  1. Shutting Down Polls in the United States

    Between 2012 and 2016, almost 3,000 polling stations were closed in the United States, according to the Washington Post. In some places, physical polling places are being replaced with other methods of voting, such as mail-in ballots, but in other places, voting rights activists allege that the closure of physical polls is a form of voter suppression. Polling places have been shuttered in many black communities, and when polling stations close, people have to travel farther to vote, which can be a barrier to participation.

    Explore the issue of closing of polls in the United States before the midterm election in 2018 with your students. Read the article Polling Places Become Battleground in U.S. Voting Rights Fight with your students. Then discuss with them:

    • Should cost be a factor when deciding where polling places are located? Why or why not?
    • Should governments with a history of voter suppression be subjected to stronger scrutiny when they close polling places?
    • What other measures could governments take to increase voting?
  2. Voting in Your Own Community

    Research how voting works where you live. You can use the National Democratic Institute’s website to look up information about elections around the world.

    In the United States, voting is overseen by states, and thus requirements vary from state to state. Research how voting is organized in your own community. You can use the following resources or conduct your own search for local news:

  3. The History of Voter Suppression in the United States

    Use our Teaching Idea Voting Rights and the Midterm Elections to teach students more about the history of voting rights in the United States.

Citations

Get More Tips for Teaching Current Events
Sign up to receive our latest teaching ideas in a short biweekly email.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.