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  Opinion   Columnists  20 Feb 2017  Voting a right, don’t make it compulsory

Voting a right, don’t make it compulsory

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.
Published : Feb 20, 2017, 2:22 am IST
Updated : Feb 20, 2017, 6:36 am IST

Preliminary studies indicate the larger the size of electoral rolls, higher is the proportion of error.

Representational Image
 Representational Image

The just-concluded Assembly elections in Goa, Uttarakhand and the first three rounds of polling in Uttar Pradesh witnessed a higher turnout compared to the previous Assembly elections in these states, with Punjab being the only exception. While the turnout in Goa and Uttarakhand and in three rounds in UP witnessed on an average an increase between three-five per cent compared to the previous Assembly elections, in Punjab it marginally declined by about one per cent. Not only has the turnout increased in these Assembly elections, it has increased in almost all the state Assembly elections held during the past one decade compared to the previous Assembly elections in those respective states. This is positive development in Indian electoral democracy, and efforts of the Election Commission, specially the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme, has helped in motivating the mobilising voters and their turning out in big numbers to vote on the election day. But the irony is, instead of thinking of positive modes of voters’ mobilisation and thinking of mode for making condition more conducive for voters to turnout to vote, there is an argument in favour of compulsory voting to increase the voting turnout.

Advocating in favour of making voting compulsory in India should be compared with an act more or less similar to a doctor suggesting operation to a patient without even examining him/her or without knowing which ailment the person may be suffering from. While there is speculation about what may be the reasons for the low turnout in Indian elections, more so in big cities, there is no clear answer on what really is the problem, why large numbers of people do not turn up to vote in national elections or in many state Assembly elections. The most talked-about reason for lower turnout is voters’ apathy, low level of interest in politics in general and elections in particular.


I do not wish to counter this argument, yes there may be a section of voters, who may not be interested in politics or elections, but the reasons for lower turnout are varied — unclean electoral rolls, other hindrances like non-possession of identity proof, not being able to get a holiday from the employer, etc. If apathy was the only reason for lower voters’ turnout, then this should be reflected in many states and for all levels of elections. But we do not see any uniform pattern. The smaller states with lesser number of constituencies and with a small number of registered voters in each constituency regularly witness higher turnouts compared to the bigger states with large Assembly constituencies. Most of the states in the Northeast, the two hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and the costal state of Goa regularly witness a very high turnout, as high as 80-90 per cent, while the bigger states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh witness much lower turnouts compared to the smaller states elections after election.


Similarly, we notice another trend: the lower the level of election, the higher is the turnout. In the same state, the Assembly elections invariable witness higher turnout compared to the Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, the local body elections (panchayat and municipal election) witness higher turnout compared to the Assembly elections in the same state. It is well known that the size of Assembly constituencies is smaller compared to Lok Sabha constituencies. Smaller constituencies mean a smaller number of registered voters. Preliminary studies indicate the larger the size of electoral rolls, higher is the proportion of error. There are names in the voters’ list still present which should not have been there, which makes the turnout artificially low. There are voters registered in the voters’ list who will never vote (ghost voters) even if a system of compulsory voting is introduced in India.


Look at another pattern, the bigger the size of the city, the lower the turnout. There are always reports about cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bhopal and similar big cities registering a very low turnout. Most of the lower turnout in metropolitan cities is commonly explained as lower turnout amongst the middle class due to apathy towards elections. Studies conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies indicate that the lower turnout in metropolitan cities is not due to lower turnout amongst middle class, but due to very poor turnout amongst the poorer section of voters. And two explanations for very low turnout amongst the urban poor are non-possession of identity proof amongst large sections of them and their inability to obtain paid leave on voting day. A very large section of the urban poor are working in the unorganised sector, and their employers do not give them a paid holiday on voting day. Most of such daily wage-earners do not want to forgo their one-day salary for exercising their voting right. And that is one of the important reasons contributing to a lower turnout in metropolitan cities. By making voting compulsory to enhance voters’ turnout may not be the best way to solve the problem of lower turnout.


In a democracy like India, where it is not mandatory for political parties to necessarily contest elections, why should voters be asked to vote compulsorily? If political parties, after being registered with the Election Commission are free to contest or not to contest elections, then why should voters, be denied this freedom? Voters should also have the liberty to decide whether they wish to vote or not after being registered as voters. There is hardly any case for making voting compulsory in India.

Tags: voting, up polls, sveep programme