India is paving the way for truly accessible elections
The postal ballot facility was extended to PwDs and senior citizens since 2019. This will lead to greater participation in the democratic process.
It may be a simple coincidence that the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (PwD) coincided with the election season in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. But if disability inclusion is central to the United Nations Sustainable Development promise to leave no one behind, the twin assembly elections provided serious assurance. The Election Commission of India (ECI)’s motto, “no voter to be left behind”, underlines a more accessible and equitable world. Apart from conducting free and fair polls, ECI has declared a higher commitment to “participative, accessible, inclusive” elections in recent years. “Accessible elections” was declared the theme for 2018. As part of these initiatives, over 8.3 million electors have already been mapped as persons with disability (PwDs) on the electoral rolls across the country. Out of 49 million electors in Gujarat, about one million people are older than 80 — of whom 10,000 are centenarians. PwD electors are another 400,000. Himachal Pradesh has 122,000 senior citizens and 56,000 PwD electors out of a total electorate of 5.6 million. Systematic efforts are also being made to bring transgender persons and other marginalised sections into the electoral fold. Around 1,400 transgender persons are on the electoral rolls of the two states.
PwD facilitation now spans end-to-end: Registration, voting process, and voter education. Facilitation efforts for these special categories and women, made at about 60,000 polling stations in both states, followed an exhaustive checklist and are verified by ECI-appointed observers. Braille signage in Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) was mainstreamed fully in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The postal ballot facility was extended to PwDs and senior citizens since 2019.
In the changing contours of election management, one polling station in each of the 182 assembly constituencies in Gujarat was managed by PwD staffers, and one in each district by young people. As many as 1,274 booths were managed fully by women. A new mobile application, PwD App, based on international standards, supported quality facilitation measures. The facility of home voting — extended to those older than 80 along with PwDs — is exceptional in its empathy and in overcoming the challenge of execution. The facility involved a polling team, duly supervised, coming to the doorstep with a replicated polling booth that includes a voting compartment to provide secrecy and security.
Around 2% of eligible voters used it in Gujarat, and the figure was 22% in Himachal Pradesh, a state with difficult terrain. Home voting, which began as a Covid-19 response facilitation, is still in its early phase. As it gets traction and numbers rise in larger states, and as political parties become conscious of the potential of these votes, election managers might face more challenges in terms of logistics and regulation.
An understated but revolutionary step towards the inclusion of youth is the introduction of additional cut-off points for the registration of new electors. This has enabled the addition of 330,000 newly eligible electors in Gujarat and another 43,000 in Himachal from January 1 to October 1. Going ahead, this move will give the youth an emphatic voice that politicians can’t ignore.
Ironically, inclusion issues are more glaring in urban pockets. In Gujarat, the gap in turnout between some rural and urban constituencies was as high as 35%, causing ECI to record its concern after first phase. Not a single urban assembly constituency crossed 65% voting. In Himachal Pradesh, urban Shimla’s turnout was 13 percentage points lower than the state average. Indifference was more pronounced among professionals and those in the organised sector. In the run-up to the 2024 elections, urban apathy may become a headache for election managers and political contenders, alongside the issue of internal migrants.
There has been a range of scientific efforts for over a decade now under ECI’s programme, Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation, for both quantitative and qualitative integration of citizens with the electoral process.
The results are there. Gujarat had decisively broken the 70% turnout barrier in 2012. The recent gains in participation among women and youth, and the repairs in urban apathy, need to be taken forward. Accessibility measures suggest recognition that elections belong to the people. But those who have guaranteed access must participate. All said and done, greater participation in the democratic process is everyone’s business.
Akshay Rout is former director-general, Election Commission of India, and was recently Special Observer in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh
The views expressed are personal