Compulsory voting in India will boost credibility of results; make democracy more inclusive, vibrant and representative

India’s 2014 general election was the largest democratic event in the history of mankind, just by the sheer size of the electorate.

A total of 814 million people were eligible to vote in the election. However, of these, only 66.4 percent actually voted. On the face of it, this seems like a decent number. But given the numbers, that means 273.5 million eligible voters did not vote. To put this into perspective, this figure is more than the entire population of Brazil and Indonesia (the 4th and 5th most populated countries in the world), respectively.

One hundred and eight countries had a higher voting percentage than India. A dismal rank, as highlighted in the table below:

1 Vietnam 99.26%
2 Rwanda 98.80%
3 Laos 97.94%
4 Singapore 93.56%
5 Ethiopia 93.22%
6 Malta 92.06%
7 Turkmenistan 91.69%
8 Australia 91.01%
9 Antigua and Barbuda 90.27%
10 Solomon Islands 89.93%
11 Luxembourg 89.66%
12 Uruguay 89.62%
13 Faroe Islands 89.50%
14 Belgium 89.37%
15 Guinea-Bissau 88.57%
16 Uzbekistan 88.51%
17 Seychelles 87.61%
18 Bolivia 87.45%
19 Sweden 87.18%
20 Bahamas 86.91%
21 Turkey 86.22%
22 Denmark 85.89%
23 Cuba 85.65%
24 Botswana 84.75%
25 Sierra Leone 84.20%
26 Equatorial Guinea 84.01%
27 Aruba 83.96%
28 Cambodia 83.02%
29 Nauru 82.48%
30 Malaysia 82.32%
31 Tajikistan 82.00%
32 Philippines 81.95%
33 Netherlands 81.93%
34 Peru 81.88%
35 Ecuador 81.74%
36 Timor-Leste 80.98%
37 Sao Tome and Principe 80.65%
38 Austria 80.00%
39 Tuvalu 79.99%
40 New Zealand 79.75%
41 Brazil 79.50%
42 Iceland 79.18%
43 Cook Islands 79.12%
44 Norway 78.22%
45 Maldives 77.93%
46 Liechtenstein 77.82%
47 State of Palestine 77.70%
48 Sri Lanka 77.66%
49 Kenya 77.37%
50 Kazakhstan 77.10%
51 Papua New Guinea 76.89%
52 Cameroon 76.79%
53 Argentina 76.74%
54 Germany 76.15%
55 Angola 76.13%
56 Panama 75.19%
57 Indonesia 75.11%
58 Yemen 74.98%
59 Belarus 74.68%
60 Mauritius 74.41%
61 Burundi 74.32%
62 Cayman Islands 74.06%
63 Venezuela 73.76%
64 Grenada 73.65%
65 Mongolia 73.58%
66 South Africa 73.48%
67 Montenegro 73.41%
68 Saint Vincent 73.39%
69 Anguilla 73.24%
70 Samoa 73.06%
71 Bermuda 72.98%
72 Greenland 72.95%
73 Italy 72.93%
74 Suriname 72.72%
75 Belize 72.69%
76 Liberia 72.49%
77 Mauritania 72.46%
78 Israel 72.34%
79 Guyana 72.19%
80 Saint Kitts 72.19%
81 Namibia 72.00%
82 Fiji 71.92%
83 Bhutan 71.46%
84 Comoros 71.35%
85 Guatemala 71.13%
86 Montserrat 71.06%
87 Gibraltar 70.77%
88 Monaco 70.35%
89 Malawi 70.07%
90 Kuwait 70.00%
91 Spain 69.84%
92 Myanmar 69.72%
93 Hungary 69.67%
94 United Kingdom 68.93%
95 Nepal 68.67%
96 Canada 68.28%
97 Dominican Republic 67.77%
98 Uganda 67.61%
99 Ghana 67.55%
100 Kiribati 67.54%
101 Tunisia 67.43%
102 Bahrain 67.00%
103 Tonga 67.00%
104 Finland 66.85%
105 Trinidad and Tobago 66.84%
106 Macedonia 66.79%
107 Cyprus 66.74%
108 Virgin Islands 66.58%
109 India 66.40%

One could argue that a percentage wise list might in some cases not be a relevant (or fair) reference benchmark to evaluate India’s performance, simply because the numbers of electorate is significantly lower in most of these countries. Therefore, the chart below indicates a list of top 30 countries, with largest voter registrations and their voter turnouts.

Here too, it can be clearly seen that although India lies in the median range, there is massive scope for improvement. Countries with similar socio-economic conditions such as Brazil, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Argentina performed much better than India.

The larger point being that there is a huge section of the Indian population, which can and should vote, but doesn’t exercise its right. When you convert the percentages into numbers, they put into question the very legitimacy of elections, and by implication, of democracy, in India.

In most elections in India (Assembly polls), it is safe to presume that the winning party gets around 40 percent of the total votes cast. In Lok Sabha elections, the percentage goes down further, to around 30 to 35 percent. In the last elections, the BJP won 282 seats, while clocking a 31.4 percent vote share. Now, imagine there’s a 10% increase in voter turnout (meaning around 81.4 million more people voting). This can potentially change the whole landscape.

It has been traditionally argued elsewhere that rural India polls more percentage than urban India. Hence, there exists a larger scope for increase of voter turnout in urban areas than rural areas. Customarily, India’s urban areas have had a higher preference for the BJP. The recent Assembly elections have not been an exception. There is direct evidence that urban India votes less, but prefers the BJP. Hence, the direct beneficiary of a higher voter turnout, especially in urban areas, is naturally the BJP. Maybe this could have played a crucial part in the cliffhanger of a contest in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

An obvious electoral strategy for the BJP should be increasing voter turnout.  Australia has set the example by making voting compulsory. Failure to vote in Australia can attract a fine of up to $50. In addition, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil and a host of other countries enforce some form of compulsory voting.

There are arguments that such a move could result in “donkey-voting”, a practice where voters (who do not have any voting preferences) turn-up and vote at random, mostly for the anyone which appears first on the ballot paper/machine. This argument is based on the assumption that most non-voters are either disinterested or simpletons incapable of reason. The essence of any democracy is to treat its electorate as mature and aware, and therefore this (speculative) argument holds little water. Others argue that compulsory voting will result in people having to forcefully choose political sides when they have consciously decided not to. A valid concern, but which has already been addressed through NOTA.

Critics argue, perhaps rightly so, that voting is a natural right of liberty which includes the freedom to not vote, and therefore no one can be compelled to vote. Admittedly, this does put a spanner in any plans to introduce compulsory voting in India, especially in the current climate of rampant judicial activism.

However, what the government can do is incentivise voting through mechanisms such as nominal income tax credits, rebates or subsidies. The Election Commission has plans to link Aadhaar (already linked with PAN) with voter ID cards, which would make for a smooth implementation from an operational perspective. Given that the middle class, which is the conventional voter base of the BJP, is also the tax paying class, such a move will also make a lot of political sense for the BJP.

Before critics of BJP accuse it of using Machiavellian tactics, they will perhaps be happy to learn that studies have shown that compulsory voting has resulted in an increased support of leftist policies. There is a robust case to shed the status-quo and to take proactive steps to increase India’s voter turnout, not only to lend credibility to election results but also in order to make India’s democracy more inclusive, vibrant and truly representative.

Raghav Pandey is an assistant professor of Law at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai and Kumar Venkatesh, is a corporate lawyer based in London.

Updated Date: Dec 16, 2018 16:41:36 IST