Causes & remedies

Voter Apathy

By Dr. S. Saraswathi
(Former Director ICSSR, New Delhi)

Voter turnout in the four phases, where 2019 Lok Sabha elections were completed last week, is reported to be better than in 2014 when the highest turn out since independence (66.38%) was recorded. According to the Election Commission, voters comprised a little over 21.5 crore men and over 20.31crore women.
More interesting is the information that women voters outnumbered men voters in nine States and UTs in the four phases. Meghalaya in the North-East recorded the highest percentage of women voters (52.13) followed by Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
Several deficiencies in the electoral system and functioning in India noticed over a period of seven decades already discussed several times are coming up once again perhaps because the present election is going through the most bitter fight since Independence. One of these is the low rate of voter turnout in many places due to various reasons. Voter apathy is a cause to worry if it is true as believed by many.
Apathy is often due to voter fatigue caused by frequent elections. In India political elections are held for Parliament, Assemblies, Corporations, Municipalities, and three tiers of Panchayati raj and any number of by-elections to fill up vacancies. Only Lok Sabha election is a nation-wide event. Somewhere some election is going on throughout the year making the election management bodies, once placed at second level in administrative importance, the busiest Constitutional body today.
Voting being a civic right and not a duty, voter apathy has to be tolerated. Treatment for it is to build contacts and conversations between members of elected bodies and voters. Just as freedom to speak includes freedom not to speak, freedom to vote includes freedom not to vote.
Simultaneous election to Parliament and Assemblies – seriously debated as an important electoral reform – is also considered as a remedy to address this sickening voter fatigue though not a panacea for electoral illness. But, there are many practical problems in adopting it.
Voter apathy is different from political alienation, which is caused by a feeling of estrangement from the system. It arises from dejection due to a feeling of being left out in the political process. Generally, small minority groups cherishing strong feelings of separateness from the majority coupled with oneness within themselves, feel alienated. Such minorities are not necessarily social and cultural; they may even be political groups. Occasional reports of particular villages, areas or social groups advocating boycott of elections are coming, which are signs of political alienation which is different from normal voter apathy.
In most democracies, voting is a right and in some a civic responsibility. There are also democracies where voting is compulsory and regulated by national constitutions and electoral laws. Sanctions, penalties, or punishments are provided for non-voting as a civic offence. But, available reports point to lack of enforcement of compulsion in most places suggesting that compulsion is symbolic to enhance political participation.
The-First-Past-The-Post system, which permits winning people’s mandate on minority vote, further loses credibility as a democratic method by low voter turnout going even below 50 per cent. Compulsory voting is suggested as a remedy, but it is a rather drastic form of thrusting a right as a duty.
The oldest form of compulsory voting introduced in 1893 in Belgium National Assembly was extended to provincial elections in 1921, to communal elections in 1932, and to European Parliament in 1989. Introduced initially for men, it was extended to women in 1948 and the system is still in vogue. Those who fail to vote without proper justification may face prosecution and may be fined. Argentina introduced compulsory voting in 1914.
By 2013, provision for compulsory voting existed in 22 countries. Most of them are small countries except Australia where compulsory enrolment was introduced for federal election in 1912 and compulsory voting in 1924 for British subjects. Voting right was granted to indigenous population in 1949, but enrolment was not compulsory until 1984.
The Netherlands and Venezuela, which introduced compulsory voting reverted to voluntary voting. The last compulsory voting took place in The Netherlands in 1967 and in Venezuela in 1993. Voting rate drastically declined in subsequent elections conducted on voluntary voting basis. Chile enforced compulsory voting for some years, but abandoned it in 2012. In Brazil, except for illiterate, youth between 16 and 18 years, and the elderly above 75 years of age, voting is compulsory and failure carries fines.
In Singapore non-voters are removed from the voter register and are disqualified from contesting elections. They can be readmitted only on fresh application. In the US, voter turnout has been much less than in many developing countries, but there is no support for compulsory voting system. According to PEW research data, 56 per cent of voting age population voted in 2016 presidential election in USA which placed it in rank 31 among 35 countries covered in the study. The Census Bureau recorded that that there were about 245.5 million Americans aged 18 and above, but only 157.6 million were registered voters. Voter turnout in 2016 was slightly higher than in 2012, but lower than 2008 record.
Compulsory voting is not a foolproof solution to low voting. Its intended effects may be nullified by high proportion of spoilt ballots or “donkey votes” as they are called in places where preference vote is permitted with compulsory voting system. In preference voting, a system of ranking candidates on the ballot paper is allowed. High proportion of “donkey votes” is an indicator of voter apathy, protest or ignorance. Such systems, which apparently look like providing more scope for choice of voters, only complicate voting procedure and encourage frivolous ranking, and blank or invalid votes.
In India, voting machines, after listing names of candidates, include NOTA (none of the above) for the benefit of voters not in favour of any candidate in the contest. NOTA votes may increase if compulsory voting is enforced.
NOTA vote has gained popularity in India and is used by conscious voters who do not want to support anybody in the list, but want to prevent bogus voting. Even if NOTA votes constitute the majority of votes polled, the candidate securing highest number, however small, is declared elected.
Besides India, NOTA vote is permitted in Greece, Ukraine, Spain, North Korea, Columbia, and US State of Nevada. Russia had the system for some time, but abolished it in 2006. Bangladesh introduced it in 2008.
Given the size of the country and plurality of problems, it is impossible to enforce compulsion in voting in India. It may be argued that there is practically no incentive for average voters to vote whereas voting involves expenditure in travel and loss of income for the self-employed.
In several countries, vote buying campaigns are common on a massive scale. Model Code of Conduct in India prohibits providing vehicles to transport voters to polling booths. In this context, compulsory voting system may increase cases of “cash for votes” and flow of “election gifts” from candidates.
We have to stop thinking of impracticable suggestions and cleanse the election atmosphere mired in corrupt practices. This itself will lessen voter apathy. —INFA