Steps to increase voter turnout in elections - Hindustan Times

Steps to increase voter turnout in elections

Sep 11, 2023 09:59 PM IST

A rigorous revision of the electoral rolls and remote voting that can empower millions of internal migrants are steps to increase voter turnout in elections

The past few months have been dominated by speculation about the scheduling of the next general elections. But what has gone relatively unnoticed is an ambitious new strategy launched by the Election Commission of India (ECI), called the Turnout Implementation Plan (TIP), the latest in a series of interventions by the poll watchdog that began with the Systematic Voter Education and Electoral Participation, SVEEP programme in 2010 that resulted in India creating a turnout record in Lok Sabha elections of 2014. In 2009, the voting percentage stood at 58%, which went up to 66.4% in 2014, and 67.6% in 2019. Now, the ECI hopes to push it past 70%.

2024 will be a critical test with India’s electorate — which currently stands at 950 million — likely to exceed a billion (Sakib Ali/ HT Photo) PREMIUM
2024 will be a critical test with India’s electorate — which currently stands at 950 million — likely to exceed a billion (Sakib Ali/ HT Photo)

As part of TIP, the ECI has asked chief electoral officers to prepare turnout implementation plans for each assembly constituency after an elaborate gap analysis. The exercise includes a demography and topography review, an extensive study of turnout history and an assessment of local socio-cultural modes and institutions, the nature of participation barriers and prevalent communication channels. The attempt is to map the non-voter and resolve her predicament. State and district officials will have a scientific job to accomplish while fixing their turnout targets and the roadmaps to arrive there. The plan aims that no assembly segment lags the state average, and no state falls behind the national average.

Unlike many countries that have voter education built into their statutes, India embraced this principle late into its democratic trajectory, and only incorporated this principle as a substantial aspect of democratic action in the late 2000s. But the revival of turnout as a key thrust of the poll watchdog is important, given global trends of depressed voting, especially in metropolitan areas. Between the 1940s and 1980s, voting in developed countries hovered around the stable mark of 75%, but since the early 1990s, it has dipped to around 60%, according to studies by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. This trend is marked in Europe, and affected major countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and Venezuela, where some elections have seen turnouts of around 30%. The reasons can be varied — political conditions and perception of democratic backsliding, despondence over economic development, unexciting agenda and candidature, problems with ease of voting, quality of campaign, concentration of elections, or plain voter apathy. Voter fatigue amidst a glut of polls is given as one of the reasons for the call for One Nation One Election.

In 1950, universal adult suffrage was boldly adopted by a young Republic, making the radical promise of equality to its citizens. At the same time, it bestowed upon itself an onerous responsibility of educating and inspiring people who had been kept out of the system. The large denominator of India’s eligible voting population, therefore, must be matched by a high turnout for this democratic promise to actualise. Lower participation points to a democracy deficit at a time when the number of contesting candidates is on the rise.

Against this backdrop, 2024 will be a critical test with India’s electorate — which currently stands at 950 million — likely to exceed a billion. The upcoming general elections to five state assemblies could show the way. In addition to TIP, two additional steps might help.

One, a rigorous revision of the electoral rolls, especially close to the date of the polls, can be a turnout enhancer. If dead, absent or duplicate names are removed from the list and eligible people are added, both the denominator and the numerator are positively impacted. Purification of the electoral roll, abetted by the best available technology is rightly in steady focus of election managers. Two, remote voting can empower millions of internal migrants who face significant logistical and financial hurdles in voting. For now, the idea has not attracted the political consensus necessary for takeoff. In this case, more than the turnout, what is at stake is the functional voting right of citizens displaced for existential reasons. If technology can help these people, political parties need to find the conviction to embrace it.

India’s democratic standing in the world hinges on the quality of its elections, the core of which is voter participation. Half the countries in the world — including India — fall within the 60%-79% voter turnout band. At a time when India has made rapid strides in establishing itself as a preeminent economic and diplomatic power, it should also aspire to get into the elite club of countries that see 80% turnout in democratic elections. Higher turnout places greater accountability on lawmakers, and can foster better performance from the country’s elected executive. India’s urban citizen who is often accused of being the bystander in its electoral process — interested but not involved — needs to appreciate this.

Akshay Rout is a former director general, Election Commission of India. The views expressed are personal

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