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May 4, 2011

The paradox of large voter turnouts

More voters don’t necessarily mean better outcomes

Photo: Al Jazeera English

Nearly three-fourths of the electorate turned out to vote in the recently concluded state assembly elections in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The panchayat polls in Jammu and Kashmir have seen similarly high polling percentages. This has been universally hailed as being representative of the strength of Indian democracy.

In democracies, the ultimate holders of power are voters. The right to vote is a form of political power. The voters determine how political offices will be staffed. An individual’s vote is usually not expected to change the outcome of any election, especially in India where constituencies have large electorates. However, by virtue of having the right to vote, each individual still has a status. The public is thus authorised—in conjunction with others—to make fundamental political decisions.

Higher voting means greater engagement of the public with the state. It signifies a political empowerment of a larger number of stakeholders—the citizens of a democratic state. This is welcome because all citizens subject to political power of the state ought to have a say in how that power is wielded. It is for this reason that most public policy commentators campaign for greater voting by the electorate. When voters complain of no suitable candidate being present in the fray for them to vote for, the realist solution is to vote for the least unsuitable candidate.

From the high visibility Jaago Re to humble campaigns run by politically conscious individuals in the social media, the slogan of greater voting has now been accepted as a gospel truth. This is because most of us have been made to believe that greater electoral participation strengthens a democracy, provides a fairer outcome and creates a just system.

However, when we run campaigns and celebrate greater voting– presenting it as a moral, if not constitutional duty of every citizen—thereby coercing everyone to go out and vote, we overlook a major dilemma caused by these exhortations.

While it is instinctively blamed on low literacy standards, there is significant evidence that many voters, often literate and educated, are equally incompetent, ignorant, irrational and morally unreasonable about politics, public policy and governance. By creating a moral obligation to vote, we are increasing the number of incompetent and ignorant citizens who will be casting their vote. They will be subject to rent-seeking, manipulation, corruption and demagoguery that characterise democratic voting procedures in India. This low quality electorate can make worse choices at the polls: it can be worse at selecting good leaders, and can tend to choose worse policies. Having a low quality electorate also tends to reduce the quality of the candidates who stand for elections. In fact, a low quality electorate brings the quality of an election’s results downward even before the election takes place.

When voters choose badly, the consequences can be dire. Bad voting can be and has been disastrous. After all, the National Socialists were also brought to power in Germany in 1933 by a popular vote.

Many good studies exist on the pathologies of democratic decision-making under universal suffrage. Bryan Caplan, a professor at George Mason University, argues that voters are systematically biased and systematically in error about which economic policies will promote their ends. Scott Althaus, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign uses a different data set from Mr Caplan, but arrives at similar conclusions. Mr Althaus concludes that well-informed citizens have systematically different political preferences from uninformed citizens. Loyola Marymount University’s Andrew Healy has a series of papers showing that voters in the United States and elsewhere punish incumbent candidates for bad weather. Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University, has documented cases of serious motivated reasoning and irrationality even among politically active citizens.

Those who object to this suggestion hold that the electorate, as a collective body, tends to make excellent choices even if many or most of the voters are incompetent. There are certain mathematical models in which democracies can be expected to nearly always make good decisions, even though the majority of voters are incompetent. For example, the Miracle of Aggregation theory holds that a very large electorate composed almost entirely of ignorant voters but which has a small minority of informed voters will make equivalent decisions to an electorate composed solely of the informed voters.

However, empirical work on voter behaviour suggests that voters tend to be altruistic but badly informed when their votes do not count for much, yet they tend to become more selfish and better-informed in rare cases when their votes do count for much. The inconsequentiality of individual votes in India’s large constituencies means that voters, regardless of whether they have selfish or altruistic motives, have little incentive to be well-informed about politics, or even to form their political beliefs in a rational way. The costs of gathering relevant information and processing this information outweigh the expected benefits of voting well.

However, this does not mean that we draw a bright red line that segregates all citizens into voters and non-voters, based on those citizens’ individual abilities. That would disenfranchise a section of the populace and goes against the basic tenet of universal suffrage underpinning the Indian democracy.

Most people could vote competently if only they put in the effort to educate themselves on matters of public policy. But all the citizens can never have the time or the capacity to become expert political scientists, sociologists and economists on their own. The onus is thus upon think-tanks, NGOs and the media to make an endeavour to highlight relevant issues, break them down into easily understandable forms and present it to the electorate for taking an informed decision. All campaigns for greater voting must therefore be accompanied by equally strong information campaigns, lest these exhortations for greater electoral participation end up being counterproductive to the democratic cause.

Democracy has held India in good stead since it became a republic. This doesn’t mean that Indian democracy is perfectly just, or that it could not do even better. The way to further strengthen Indian democracy is to simultaneously educate the electorate while exhorting them to come out and vote in larger numbers.


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