Low voter turnout: Why you should care?

To overcome the pressing issue of low voter count, EC is adapting several measures such as bringing in influencers to educate voters in Delhi about the significance of casting their vote, writes Ashish Srivastava..
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.

NEW DELHI: In the world’s largest democracy, one may say the Lok Sabha elections serve as a cornerstone of political participation and representation. However, beneath the veneer of democratic fervour lies a pressing concern; the persistent issue of low voter turnout. As the Election Commission of India grapples with ensuring the sanctity and inclusivity of the electoral process, the challenge posed by dwindling voter participation looms large, raising questions about the health of India’s democracy.

Voter turnout in Lok Sabha elections has been far from uniform across regions and demographics. While some constituencies witness enthusiastic voter engagement, others struggle with electorate apathy and disinterest. Delhi, being the national capital disappoints largely.

Image used for representational purposes.
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The reasons behind low voter turnout in the city are multifaceted and complex, ranging from logistical barriers to systemic disenchantment. However, the one factor which holds down the shoes of the city electorate the most is a phenomenon coined as ‘urban apathy.’

The voter ennui

Last year, the Chief Election Commissioner said the key reason for low voter turnout in assembly and parliamentary elections in urban and semi-urban areas was what he called, ‘urban apathy’. He pointed out, of the 20 constituencies with the lowest voter turnout, 11 were urban areas. This trend of low voter turnout was also visible in constituencies with a significant urban population.

Tikender Singh Panwar, a former deputy mayor of Shimla, writes that urban apathy is not a result of individual subjectivity but a manifestation of the ‘depoliticised environment’ and the belief that “nothing can happen.”

“As a result, people lack interest in urban issues and problems, such as poverty, crime, environmental degradation, and politics, which affect the cities and its residents. This phenomenon is also a reflection of large-scale informalisation of the major sectors that provide employment in the cities, making it a daunting task for individuals to survive and obtain the bare minimum.

The complexity of urban issues can make residents feel overwhelmed and helpless. Anonymity and disconnection are widespread in large cities, leaving individuals wanting a greater sense of belonging. This sense of alienation can also be attributed to the way city structures are being constructed. For example, the city development process is so elitist that even middle-class sections feel disconnected, let alone the large sections of the working class,” Panwar says.

“There’s a tendency within certain sections of society to consider election-day as a vacation from duties, especially if it falls during weekends. They leave town, visit families. This is very prevalent among the middle class. This is a major reason for urban apathy in metropolitan cities like Delhi,” said Atul Goyal, president, United Residents Joint Action (URJA).

The city’s poll body also finds a tremendous challenge in ensuring maximum turn out in the Delhi booths which have seen an upwards of 70 polling percentage only once, in 1977, after the Emergency was lifted.

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“The main cause behind low voting here is urban apathy. People living in posh area rarely come out to vote. It’s reflected in the assembly-wise polling pattern as well,” said Kinny Singh, Returning Officer, West district.

However, the Chief Elector’s Office (CEO) is now using all methods to enhance electorate participation. Officers said while efforts are on to maximise engagement of every group, first-time voters are being prioritised, to inculcate in them belongingness towards the electoral process and create a lasting sense of duty towards exercising their franchise.

First-time adult

It seems, India’s youngest eligible voters, aged 18 or 19, are hesitant to exercise their electoral rights. According to ECI data, less than 40% of these 18 and 19-year-olds have registered for the 2024 general elections across the country, with certain states such as Delhi and Uttar Pradesh lagging behind with ever lower enrollment rates of 21% and 23% respectively.

In order to woo the young, the poll body is using every bit of its creativity and ingenuity coupled with the resources at its dispensation to strike a chord among the new generation.

Surprises, gifts, and all

Election officers are set to roll out a unique initiative for those born on May 25, the day the city goes to polls. A surprise awaits the registered voters born on May 25. The only condition, you must come and cast your vote.

The initiative comes under a broad are of projects, the Systematic Voter’s Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) by the CEO, to encourage a significant electoral turn out.

Kinny Singh, District Magistrate (West), one of the brains behind the initiative, said the move is a goodwill gesture to encourage the voters. “This is a small initiative which we have planned as a goodwill gesture for the people having their birthdays on the Delhi poll day. The day of the surprise will be informed to voters. To verify the birth date, sharing Aadhar number has been made mandatory. However, individuals will have to show their inked fingers to prove that they indeed voted,” she added.

Registration forms for participation have been made available, both physically with the BLOs (Booth level officers), and on the web. People will have to fill in their details including the EPIC number (Voter ID number).

Influencing youth

Delhi-based influencers, popular on social media platforms for content on fashion, food, travel, technology, and so on, with followers running into hundreds of thousands are being roped in by the election office to educate voters about significance of casting their vote in the massive poll exercise.

Influencers are being urged to create content on poll awareness and design fun and creative ‘challenges’ related to voting which can go viral and encourage more and more people to take parts in voting.

However, caution was observed before engaging these influencers in election activity. “We looked through the profiles and selected those who are neutral and do not post objectionable content,” a senior official said.

According to officials, the educational content crafted to inform voters about the proper exercise of their voting rights spans a wide array of topics, including, importance of elections, electoral process, understanding the ballot, voting rights and voter suppression, voter registration, evaluating candidates and campaigns, NOTA awareness, among others.

“We have observed a massive change in the media landscape and content consumption habits since last elections. The social and digital media revolution has changed the media mix and the components of outreach campaigns. There was a need to leverage social media tools for better engagement of citizens, particularly the youth, to motivate them for electoral participation. Since many youth are glued to reels on Instagram, the message could reach a wide section of voters,” an official from CEO said.

Walkathon, podcasts

Mekala Chaitanya Prasad, District Magistrate (South), said variety of initiatives, walkathons and podcasts, hosted on music streaming platform Spotify, are being used to generate the awareness. “We just concluded one such event with a theme of ‘Walk to Vote’. The purpose was to engage the young bees and educate them about the responsibility of voting. During the walkathon, students took the forefront, raising spirited slogans for voter education and distributed informative materials and pamphlets to the public, shopkeepers, and passersby, thus fostering a culture of informed citizenship,” he said.

Besides, election officers have also started a podcast of community radio programmes focused on different voter groups including persons with disabilities (PwD) and third genders.

“We identified the number of community radios operating in South Delhi district to fulfill our objective to target local voters. We got in touch and collaborated with one of the community radios and they aired the programme, ‘Humara Swabhiman Matdan’. This initiative has dedicated episodes catering to the concerns of PwD voters, elderly voters, transgenders, youth and also first-time voters.

Since community radio has limited coverage, the programme has also been uploaded on Spotify, a digital music, podcast, and video streaming service, with an advantage of wide coverage, and accessibility of information to the youngsters with just a touch,” Kshitij Gyanraj Sa, Nodal officer (SVEEP), shared with us.

“Interviews of election officials, including those working at the grass-root level like BLOs are also being considered to inform citizens about the scale and extent of the polling process in the Inidan general elections,” he added.

Including citizen bodies, RWAs

Localities around high profile addresses inhabited by the relatively more affluent class, generally fares very poorly when it comes to exercising their poll power. The posh South Delhi locales have been one such area.

Historically, the constituency is infamous for low voter turnouts. Only a single instance can be cited when the constituency voted above 60%, and that was in the 2014 parliamentary election. By-elections aside, the polling history of the South Delhi Lok Sabha seat suggests here, the voting percentage increases in one election, only to inevitably decrease in the next elections. The voter turnout of South Delhi constituency has always swung between crest and trough, posing a significant challenge before the election commission.

Image used for representational purposes.
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Election officers said, in such localities, engaging RWAs can make a difference in generating awareness. “The flip-flop that we have recorded in the voting pattern of the South Delhi constituency is a challenge to break. There has been an increase and subsequent decrease in the polling percentage in parliamentary elections. In 2014, there was an enthusiasm among voters which led to over 62% turnout at the polling booths. However, this enthusiasm waned in the next parliamentary elections in 2019 when the voter turnout reduced to just over 58%. To overcome this challenge, we plan to engage RWAs and start door-to-door campaigning in order to sensitize voters of South Delhi. In the coming days, we will also set-up multiple camps in the area,” a senior official said.

Some other initiatives

“We have set-up Electoral Literacy Club in schools and colleges to encourage first-time and prospective voters. The idea is not just to educate them about the importance of voting, but also to communicate the message through them to their elders, and motivate them as well to exercise their franchise. Besides, we are conducting separate awareness programmes targeting groups such as elderly citizens, working professionals, women, and third gender voters. Our officers are going to college festivals and using the platform to sensitise people about electoral process,” said Kinny Singh

“Reaching out till last voter is very important. Like neighbouring cities of Ghaziabad and Noida, the poll body can also create booths in residential societies in Delhi. It will provide some relief to prospective voters against the summer heat, enabling them to travel less and avoid crowds which are also major deterrents for citizens from engaging in the poll process. Finding a proper space to park vehicles at the polling stations adds to the woes. So I believe if booths are set-up in gated communities, turnout can match expectation or even go beyond that,” he said.

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