No, the ‘overpaid’ IT worker might not be the cause of Bangalore’s low voter turnout

Venkatesh Kannaiah
Urban voter attendance at polling booths is much less than the rural voter. (File)

There have been many theories on why urban voters don’t turn up to vote. Bangalore could be an interesting case study.

Considered a BJP stronghold, in 2014 parliamentary polls, BJP won all the three seats — Bangalore South, Bangalore North and Bangalore Central — with a margin of more than 1.5 lakh votes. Bangalore sees huge rallies whenever Modi turns up, attendance is high and the voter appears to be enthused.

In the 2018 Assembly elections, Congress led the polls in the city with 14 seats and the BJP scored 11. So the voter is also aware and has been changing his preferences quite often.

We also find anecdotal reports of long queues at polling stations, of the young and the elderly wanting to vote and all point to a fairly engaged voter, if not a fully energised voter. However, the polling percentage in Bangalore city is much below the state average and also the Bangalore Rural average.

For instance, while the Karnataka first phase polling average in 2019 (for 14 of the 28 seats) was 68.8 per cent, for Bangalore South it was 53.4 per cent, for Bangalore Central it was 54.2 per cent, and for Bangalore North it was 54.6 per cent.

This is a case not of Bangalore alone, but other cities too. Urban voter attendance at polling booths is much less than the rural voter.

Blame has been laid at the ‘overpaid’ IT worker who is always taking a day off when there is an election, or just going out of the city on a short vacation whenever there is an opportunity, or just being active on Twitter and not taking the trouble to go out and vote.

Politicians say the Bangalore voter complains too much but does not vote, hinting that he does not have a right to complain as he or she had anyway not voted. Some go to the extent of saying there must be ‘compulsory voting’ indicating another trend of trying to discipline the voter.

However, is the urban voter fully to blame for the low voter turnout? It may not be so. The hidden elephant in the room is the quality of voter lists in urban areas. One issue is that while additions to the voter lists are taken up by citizens and citizen groups in a proactive manner, deletion of names from voter lists is taken up very rarely by either the citizens or civic groups.

A study conducted by Janaagraha, a non-profit organisation working on urban governance issues, including quality of voter lists in cities, found that in Shanti Nagar Assembly constituency in Bangalore city, during the period of 2011-2014, that of the total voters of more than 2 lakh, around 30% of the names were not found at the addresses where they claim to reside. This could be for a variety of reasons; either they had moved to another place in the same constituency, or moved to another place in the city to another constituency or had moved to another city but they remain in the voter lists. Also, the voter had got a different voter ID in a different constituency but had not taken the trouble to delete the same in the earlier place.

Hence, such issues remain in the city voter lists, where there is the migration of white and blue collar workers. This could be lesser in rural areas where voter population might be relatively stable.

It is to be noted that there is a higher bar in the electoral system for deletion of voter names than for addition of new names to the voter lists. The reason could also be that government agencies feel that one should not be unfairly disenfranchised. Hence, new names get added and the old names might not get deleted in time or in a rigorous fashion. This could end up bloating the voter lists.

However, the Election Commission has appointed Booth Level Officers (BLO) to set right this issue — to add and delete voters from the voter lists. A study conducted by Janaagraha on Booth Level Officers in Bangalore in 2016 points out many lacunae in their functioning. These range from the amount of work allotted to them; for example, many of them are full-time government teachers who are also expected to booth level officers, doing it for an honorarium. In many cases, they are given the job of managing two polling parts, of around 1,000 voters each while managing 1,000 voters itself might be a burden. There are issues with the training of BLO’s, their payments and their capability to do the job allotted to them apart from their keenness to do it.

Hence with all these issues, the number of real voters might be much less than what is on the rolls. The urban voter might not be so apathetic to elections; he might be voting, but the numbers are not showing up and are getting under-reported. He is however also to blame as he is not taking the trouble to delete his name from voter lists, whenever he is shifting his location.

There are other issues too with complaints of an unduly long time to add new names to the voter lists, to unverified deletions, but that is a different story. Next time you blame the ‘overpaid’ Bangalore IT worker for not taking the trouble to vote; take a pause.