The calculus of voting: India’s democracy owes greatly to unwavering support to millions of voters

Published: December 12, 2018 3:00:45 AM

The reasons that take voters to the polls are innumerable. Nevertheless, one of India’s strongest institutions—the seven decades of stable democracy—owes greatly to the unwavering support and enthusiasm of its millions of voters

In a democracy, elections offer every citizen an opportunity to choose a representative.

By Raisa Sherif & Lekha Chakraborty

Does democracy determine public expenditure decisions? Anthony Downs, the renowned political scientist, explained a moment of ‘democratic collapse’ if the ‘costs of voting’ (C) are higher than the voter’s faith in the probability of her vote changing the outcome (P) and the benefits she derives out of her candidate winning (B). One powerful determinant of voting behaviour that can pre-empt the magnificent embarrassment of ‘costs’ (C) greater than ‘benefits’ (B) is the citizen’s sense of ‘civic duty’ (D) or her ‘right to vote’. A test of this theory—whether P, B, C or D matter for Indian voters—can be an interesting evidence-based election research.

With the Lok Sabha elections just at the turn of the year and several state elections lined up, it is compelling to look at the question “why do people vote?” When we posed this to a group of teenagers, they retorted: “Well, shouldn’t the question be, why don’t people vote?” However, they were excited to exercise their “right to vote” for the first time.

In a democracy, elections offer every citizen an opportunity to choose a representative. Creating, correcting and maintaining a democracy is important for every member in varying degrees, and is in essence a public good. We would like to have a fully functional democracy, but the costs at the individual level are high, and each of us would prefer if the others did it for us.

The costs aren’t limited to taking the time out to vote, finding your polling booth or standing in the winding queues all morning, but also acquiring information about the candidates, campaign promises, and most importantly, analysing who is good for you and your fellow constituents. This is a cognitively demanding task and a formidable challenge for most of us.

Despite this, voters might like to vote to signal that they care about contributing to this public good. Numerous empirical studies have shown that a combination of a sense of civic duty, moral responsibility and social pressure brings voters to the polling booths. Once a voter has decided to turn up, then she might as well vote for the candidate that she prefers, even if it is a mild preference. That still makes her go through the cognitively demanding task. One solution is economic voting—you re-elect the party/candidate if the economy is doing well and vote them out otherwise and this can be seen from our national election data as well. Another option is to look at elections as a grade card on incumbents—reject an office holder who did not meet your expectations in general or re-elect and retain the ones who did.

While the general consensus seems to be that as informed citizenry we have a responsibility to vote, people often appreciate the hard earned right to vote, even if they did not have to personally struggle for it. We as voters see value in the exercise of just going to the polls irrespective of the outcome. The ‘festive milieu’ around elections and salience on print, digital and online media also takes the voters to the polling booths.

Voters also try to avoid regret. They do not want to be the only vote missing in avoiding an unpleasant outcome or in achieving their preferred outcome, however unlikely that situation maybe.

Giving legitimacy to a party or candidate is also relevant to the decision to vote. A party taking the largest vote share would have the mandate to implement their agenda with limited resistance at Parliament or State Assembly. This is seen in the 2014 national elections where the BJP received such a large mandate that they have few frictions in having their way in the Lok Sabha.

Local and national elections in India are often fought along the lines of religion, caste, class and ethnic identities. Hindutva has become an unavoidable political reality that all candidates need to address, not just the BJP. In case of religiously/ethnically charged elections, it is common to observe voters voting along identity lines. Here the act of voting can be interpreted as signalling a group identity or an aspiration to belong in that group.

Vote buying is also not unheard of in the Indian context. Voters respond not to the particular policy positions of the candidates, but to the monetary or material reward that awaits them for their vote or abstention. Generous gifts including cycles and laptops are a common part of vote-buying efforts, but cash transfers continue to be the most popular. Since it is often the poor votes that are bought, there is an additional risk of muffling their voices during elections where vote buying is widespread.

With an average of 66% of eligible voters turning up to vote in the national elections (the turnout is higher in state elections) and victory margins close to being 15%, it is rather unlikely that a single vote would change the winner. Still, turnout is consistently high in Indian elections compared to most western democracies (see graphic). Hence voting in itself must be meaningful. Nevertheless, there are reasons why one wouldn’t vote as well. If voters believe that they do not have sufficient information to make a call between the candidates or are unwilling to put in the effort, they can effectively outsource the decision to others by abstaining. Since 2013, Indian voters also have the option of ‘None of The Above’ (NOTA) on the ballot, in case they do not find a reason to vote for any of the candidates, but feel the need to go to the polls, say, to express their commitment to the democratic system. Having said that, we must also have to analyse why voters even perceive a TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’) factor and willingly/unwillingly prefer to vote back the party in power.

In addition to the desire to change the election outcome, voters might be engaging in what is called ‘expressing a preference’. There is always joy in supporting the winning team or the underdog. Perhaps, participating in the process makes you feel that you have earned your right to make demands on the government.

The determinants of voting go on, as the reasons that take voters to the polls are innumerable. Nevertheless, one of India’s strongest institutions, the seven decades of stable democracy, owes greatly to the unwavering support and enthusiasm of its millions of voters.

-Sherif is a doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute, Munich, Germany; Chakraborty is associate professor, NIPFP, New Delhi

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