How ECI intends to push voter turnout - Hindustan Times
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How ECI intends to push voter turnout

Apr 18, 2024 09:40 PM IST

Election managers are trying to cover all fronts to make voting as pleasant an experience as possible in the harsh summer of this large country.

The Election Commission of India’s proactive attention to 266 low-turnout parliamentary constituencies points to its intention to take the issue head-on. Voter turnout is among the major checkpoints on which the quality of elections and, by extension, the health of Indian democracy is evaluated. The benchmark for 2024 has become stiff after the dramatic jump in turnout to 66% and 67% in the last two general elections, following a range of interventions. The next percent increase will always call for a higher level of effort.

Officials work on Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) on the eve of the first phase of voting for the country's general election, at a polling station in Chennai on April 18, 2024. Nearly a billion Indians will vote to elect a new government in six-week-long parliamentary polls starting on April 19, the largest democratic exercise in the world. (Photo by R.Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP)
Officials work on Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) on the eve of the first phase of voting for the country's general election, at a polling station in Chennai on April 18, 2024. Nearly a billion Indians will vote to elect a new government in six-week-long parliamentary polls starting on April 19, the largest democratic exercise in the world. (Photo by R.Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP)

Among the 266, 215 are rural constituencies, while 51 are in urban areas. Seen against the demographic spread of over 6.5 lakh villages and 4,800 towns and cities, the tilt towards urban voter shortfall becomes obvious. Out of the 50 constituencies that had the lowest turnout in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 17 were in cities. Several of the rest were medium-level towns and district centres, in UP and Bihar. Twenty-nine constituencies from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, and even Kolkata remained far behind the national average, with Hyderabad trailing at a pathetic 45%. Together, these constituencies had an average of 58% — 9% less than national turnout.

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In Surat, during the last Gujarat assembly election, there was a 25% gap in voting between one urban segment and a particular rural seat. Bengaluru South turnout stood at 47.5% in last year’s assembly election, while Karnataka had an impressive average of 73.84%. The list of urban non-performance is endless.

Not surprisingly, just two weeks before voting, the chief election commissioner and two election commissioners spent hours addressing the predicament. Besides a dozen top metro commissioners, select district election officers of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were also called into the huddle. The agenda was to prevent another dismal show by India’s great urban centres. City administrators were advised to engage their resources and innovative skills to cover about 10% or more of the gap with national turnout. There is realisation that one fit hardly applies to the heterogeneous urban population comprising educated elite, professionals, slum population, industrial workers, and university students, to name a few. Each set needs to be specifically engaged and nudged and their reasons for not voting resolved.

Urban apathy is not the only headache. Eleven states, mostly in northern and western parts, had turnouts lower than the national average of 67.4% in 2019. Among 50 rural constituencies that recorded the lowest turnout, 40 belonged to UP and Bihar. These two states, which had a depressed turnout of 59% and 57%, respectively, will again hold the key in 2024 as well.

Election managers are trying to cover all fronts, starting with getting the prospective voter to know what, when, where and how of voting, and stretching their resources to make voting as pleasant an experience as possible in the harsh summer of this large country. A Turnout Implementation Plan (TIP) is at work for differentiated and scientific interventions in districts, constituencies, and polling stations, with purposeful collaborations for higher electoral literacy and outreach. Celebrities and influencers are pulling their heft with young voters. The ECI’s multimedia campaigns like “Turning 18”, and “You are the One” are seeking to weave in motivation, especially harnessing the width of social media. Intense messaging has permeated spaces that touch the urban citizen — public transport, parks, markets, malls, digital platforms, and even utility bills. Polling infrastructure has been made more friendly and accessible. The facility of home voting for those above 85 years of age and those with disabilities could be an empathetic action. Comfortable and shortened wait times at the polling station, booths for high-rise buildings in arrangement with Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) and augmented parking facilities are part of the plan.

In recent years, behavioural change through community engagement has been the strategy in major national initiatives. While rural communities are more cohesive, city administrations have quite successfully connected with the community at times of need. Enforcing Covid-appropriate behaviour among millions of city dwellers not long ago is a standout case. More recently, municipal bodies are mobilising families for source segregation of waste and garbage-free cities. They could similarly mobilise to break out of the stigma of low turnout.

A well-cleansed electoral roll has meant that there are no bloated denominators. Until voting by millions of internal migrants gets sorted by a politically agreed-to mechanism, India has to live with a certain quantum of voting deficit, but certainly not with a whole 300 million. Apathy or unwillingness to act does not get borne by any excuse. It is no great citizenship to forfeit a right that also offers a choice of None of the Above (NOTA). Voting by 970 million Indians could easily be the most emphatic statement of democracy.

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

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