In my last column, I wrote about how urban voters are becoming more important for the political fortunes of parties, and how Karnataka would be the first domino reflecting India’s changing demographics. Embedded in this urban trend is also the increasing role that the middle class would play. The Bangalore elections, therefore, were filled with expectations of a large urban middle class turnout.
Resident welfare associations (RWAs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media took enormous effort to increase voter response in the city. It came as a rude shock when Bangalore registered a turnout of barely 44%, the lowest among all the places where the first round of voting took place.
The past 10 days have seen significant media coverage on the low turnout issue. “Poor show by Bangaloreans”, “Middle class don’t care” and similar choice epithets. Even this newspaper carried a story on 16 May, with a box titled “Urban apathy”. What if the numbers tell a different story? What if the middle class actually did turn out in greater numbers than before? What if we are reaching the wrong conclusion from the 44% turnout?
Imagine two formulae: the first, (240+200)/1,000; and the second, 440/1,000. Both yield a figure of 44%. But the composition of the numbers is fundamentally different. And this is at the root of what happened in Bangalore. Let me elaborate. Stay with me a bit through this analysis because the devil’s in the details.
The 44% turnout is measured as the number of voters who “turned out” or voted as a percentage of the number of people on the voters’ list. So, let’s say there are three million voters in Bangalore. These voters’ names are listed in what is called a “part” of an electoral roll. Each part is the list of voters in a polling booth.
There are approximately 1,000 voter names in a part. So, there should be 3,000 parts in Bangalore for the three million voters. In each part, only an average of 440 of the 1,000 voters have voted in these elections, which is the 44% turnout.
We all expected that more of these 1,000 voters should have “turned out” in each part. But, what if a large number of names on the list are plain wrong? Error rates in voter lists are known to be high. But exactly how high? In rural areas, reasonably good studies over the past few years show that error rates are in the region of 15-20%. But what is it in urban areas?
Two years ago, my organization Janaagraha undertook a study in collaboration with the Election Commission in one assembly constituency. We found that the error rates are more than 60%! This is a problem specific to metropolitan areas such as Bangalore, where migration both into the city and within the city is very high. There are errors of commission and omission, i.e., names that shouldn’t be there, but are present, and names that should be there but are absent.
For the turnout issue, the relevant error is the first type of error — names that shouldn’t be on the list — because the person has either died or moved out of the area. This contributes about 40% to the total error, meaning that about 400 names on the voter list are wrong and only 600 are correct. In India, “proxy”,?or bogus,?voting is very high and there is a flourishing market price for each proxy vote, depending on the importance of the constituency. This proxy voting comes from the 400 wrong names on the list.
When we say that voter turnout was 44%, we don’t know how many of these were genuine votes, and how many were proxy votes. Imagine two scenarios: one, where genuine voters were 240 and proxy voting was 200 votes, i.e., (240+200)/1,000; the second, where the genuine voters were 440 and proxy voting was zero, i.e., 440/1,000. Big difference in genuine voter turnout, almost 100%.
Here is what I think has happened in Bangalore this time around: We saw a much larger share of genuine voters — maybe 340 — and a smaller share of proxy voting — maybe 100. This is partly due to greater voter interest, and partly credit to the Election Commission, which worked very hard to reduce proxy voting. This means that genuine voter turnout actually increased by 100 votes, or 15% of the 600 genuine votes that are possible. This isn’t a trivial increase.
I don’t have data on the vote break-up, either in the past or this time. I do know, however, that the voter lists are massively broken. And so, my figures may not be exactly right, but the explanation can’t be dismissed. And if it is right, we should be having a completely different debate — how do we improve the quality of the voter list, rather than what’s wrong with the middle class.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org