Wooing the Apathetic Urban Voter

The only sustainable way to both increase turnout and eliminate socio-economic biases in the voting population is to increase the engagement of the broader public with the political world.

With the general elections just a few months away, political commentators have begun predicting plausible electoral outcomes and all parties have started to formulate electoral strategies to reach out to their respective voter bases. However, one piece of the puzzle that has remained largely ominous in this process is the urban voter.

India is rapidly urbanising and it is expected that by 2030, nearly 50% of the population will be residing in urban areas. The average voter turnout in India’s 21 fully urban constituencies has been markedly below the national voter turnout over the last five general elections, barring a few exceptions. Only the Kolkata Uttar constituency has twice and Chennai Central and Chennai North have once recorded greater voter turnouts than the national average.

A study published in 2014 showed that the presence of a higher number of educated voters results in better electoral outcomes – compared to general voters, educated voters’ support is 20% lower for heinous criminals, 20% lower for the corrupt and 13% more for females. According to the ‘Social Consumption: Education‘ survey conducted in 2014, in rural areas, nearly 4.5% of males and 2.2% of females had an education level of graduation and above, while in the urban areas 17% of males and 13% of females completed similar levels of education. Thus, it is imperative that the voter turnout in urban constituencies increases for better electoral outcomes in our country.

While analysing the problem of low voter turnout in urban constituencies, the assumption was that the problem was limited to large metropolises and not necessarily seen in small and medium-size towns. However, from 1989 onwards, within states, there has been a negative relationship between urbanisation and turnout in small and medium-sized towns as well. Hence, it is pertinent to address the issue in metropolitan cities at the earliest and implement similar solutions in a phased manner in small and medium towns.

So, what can be done to address the issue of low voter turnout in urban constituencies, commonly referred to as urban voter apathy?

Compulsory voting

There are measures such as compulsory voting that have been eschewed from time to time. The Law Commission stated in its ‘Report on Electoral Reforms’ that the introduction of compulsory voting was undesirable as it was undemocratic, illegitimate, expensive, unable to improve quality political participation and awareness, and difficult to implement.

Australia, where compulsory voting is in place, an amount of $5,000 is spent per defaulter to levy a simple fine of $50 for not voting – a clear example that the cost to the exchequer will be prohibitive. The Australian experience has also revealed the notion of “donkey voting” – wherein the voters, when forced to vote, voted for the candidate whose name was on the top of the candidates’ list.

Automatic voter registration

According to design and innovation consultancy firm IDEO, voting behaviour is influenced by three major factors – convenience, community and impact. A promising measure that eases convenience but has yet to receive sufficient attention is automatic voter registration (AVR). A citizen while registering for a driving license should automatically be enrolled in their respective constituencies. This data can be shared with the Election Commission through the creation of a common database or existing databases being seamlessly integrated using the unique identification number.

Automatic voter registration also addresses the low voter turnout amongst the 18-19 age group. The Election Commission’s analysis of the 2014 general election in Maharashtra, where nine of the 21 most urban constituencies are located, revealed a 61.68% gap in the cohort as compared to the total projected census population in this age cohort, i.e. for every 100 citizens in the 18-19 age group, only 32 exercised their right to vote. AVR will also improve voter list accuracy, leading to lower omission errors – a common complaint in urban constituencies.

While voter registration does not necessarily translate into voter participation, there are strong reasons to believe that increased voter registration and improved voter list accuracy leads to a marked improvement in voter turnout. Registered voters are more likely to be contacted by political parties and research shows that if an individual is contacted before an election, they are more likely to vote. In short, AVR can serve as a “nudge” to encourage electoral participation in the democratic process.

Social media

Social media can serve as a force multiplier by creating the necessary community pressure to get an individual to the polling booth. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature showed that certain messages promoted by friends “increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters.” The Election Commission as a part of its Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation initiative can employ big data analysis in conjunction with other technology tools to identify and segment non-voters. They can then create targeted marketing campaigns for these segments and reach out through platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.

The corporate sector can also play a role here, by incentivising their employees to vote. A competition could be created among organisations to see which one has the maximum turnout and rewarding them accordingly, as was done by the NGO Mumbai First during the 2012 civic polls.

Other major stakeholder in the electoral process are political parties and the candidates that they choose to put up in a constituency. Charismatic candidates and closer electoral contests are more likely to lead to higher turnouts as the impact of an individual’s vote is higher vis-a-vis determining the electoral outcome as compared to an constituency where only one strong candidate exists.

Gender gap

There has been a stark improvement in the gender gap over the years and this has resulted in the phenomenon of declining gender bias in voting across all the states. However, over the last two general elections (2009 and 2014), the average gender gap in the most urban constituencies has been greater than the all-India gender gap as illustrated below.

There is evidence to buttress the argument that improving security at the polling booths, results in an increase in women turnout by 2-6 percentage points per booth with no effect on male turnout. The Election Commission must identify urban constituencies with the widest gender disparities and focus on reducing the gender gap.

Once voters are registered, there must also be a reduction in information asymmetry between the voter and the candidates. It has been shown that with exposure of the electorate to performance of the candidates and the conduction of organised conferences involving policy experts and politicians results in increased voter turnout but also the vote share of the best performing candidates increases by approximately 7%. Also, individuals who perceive noticeable differences in policy positions of different candidates are more likely to turn out to vote than those who don’t perceive significant differences. There needs to be a platform that can allow for candidates or parties to present their respective views on a number of topics without resorting to unwarranted shouting and heckling. Civil society organisations can play an important role here by facilitating such a dialogue.

It is important to remember that the only sustainable way to both increase turnout and eliminate socio-economic biases in the voting population is to increase the engagement of the broader public with the political world.

Aashay Patil and Nibu Pullamvilavil are alums of the Indian School of Business (ISB) batch of 2017-18.