Twenty-five year old Vaibhav Sharma didn’t vote when Gurgaon went to polls last Thursday, because his name was missing from the voters’ list. The other five members of his family were split between two polling stations that were four kilometres apart. “I spent two to three hours running between two booths, but my name was missing in both”, said Sharma, a student of chartered accountancy.
Some 1,000 kilometres away in Bihar’s Pataliputra constituency, which also polled on May 7, voter turnout dropped nearly 20 per cent because of scorching heat and the administration’s failure to issue identity cards on time.
From incomplete voters’ lists to hot weather and lack of polling booths in close proximity, there are reasons other than just apathy that keep scores of Indians from voting. In some parts of the country, boycott calls from separatist insurgents and Naxal activists also hold back voters.
And this election is no different. While the “Pappus” seem to have ruled in Mumbai as only 41 per cent of the city’s nearly 1 crore voters showed up this time, linking political apathy to low voter turnout may be misleading.
The timing of the elections matter a lot. The turnout thus far in this election has been 57 per cent — not much different from 2004 (58 per cent) when elections were held in summer months. The weather is a big deterrent, given that in many places there are no shades and no water to drink for voters who have to stand in queues for hours, said Sanjay Kumar, fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi based think-tank. In many places, voters often have to walk miles to reach the polling booth.
In the past three decades, three elections were held in summer months and the turnout ranged from 56 per cent to 58 per cent. The other four elections came when the weather was somewhat pleasant and more than 60 per cent voters showed up each time — a figure that compares well with the average for democracies around the world. Besides the warm weather, many voters in impoverished states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa don’t show up in April, because during this time they routinely migrate to the irrigated tracts of Punjab and Haryana, where it is harvest time for the Rabi crop.
Thailand tackles a similar problem through a system of advance voting that allows people who cannot return home to cast their ballot in advance.
Voting is mandatory in Thailand; so it is in Australia, Singapore and several countries, where a voter is fined or asked to explain for not showing up. Some would say coercive measures such as these undo the spirit of democracy and that there are better ways.
An extended period for voting — more than one day — could also help, experts said. For instance, “several states in the US practice early voting, when the voter has about two weeks time to go and vote in person,” said Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute, Delhi.
The Election Commission has set up 8.3 lakh polling booths for this election, 1.4 lakh more than 2004, and votes are being cast on electronic machines across the country. But the polling infrastructure is far from attaining the standards followed in other countries, partly because our electorate is so large and we are a relatively young democracy.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, democracies born after World War II saw their voter turnout increase in the past six decades while established democracies in the West charted a reverse course. Worldwide, there has been a dip in voter turnout post 1990, converging between 50 and 75 per cent, said a recent report from the intergovernmental organisation that collates data on elections. Voter turnout would tend to be lower in newer democracies, because it takes time to build institutions and infrastructure to hold elections.
Even after 62 years of Independence, India is still battling to get its electoral rolls right. There are people who would want to vote, but they don’t because their names are missing from the list or the process of voter registration is so cumbersome.
There are also people who figure as voters in more than one constituency — those who have permanently migrated in search of work. As a result, the overall number of registered voters tends to get inflated and contributes to a low figure on voter turnout, that is the percentage share of voters who showed up in the total number registered on the list, said S K Mendiratta, legal advisor to the Election Commission.
(Chetan Chauhan in New Delhi and Sanjeev Ahuja in Gurgaon contributed to this story)