Compulsory Voting - An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Dr A Surya Prakash

Mr.Deenanath Kushwaha of the Samajwadi Party won the Deoria seat in the election held in May, 2007 to elect a new state assembly in the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh. So, what?, you would think. Mr.Kushwaha’s success would certainly be a worthless addition to the clutter of information that bombards you every minute in the internet age, until you see the fine print and realize the implications of this candidate’s “victory” to our democracy and the system of representation in our legislatures. Deoria Assembly Constituency in Uttar Pradesh has 3.49 lakh voters. In the last assembly election just 1.41 lakh of these voters (40.41 per cent of the total electorate) cast their votes. Mr.Kushwaha secured 25568 of these votes, which amounted to 18.12 per cent of the votes polled. In other words, he was the choice of less than one-fifth of the voters of Deoria who cared to trudge up to the polling stations. But what is truly remarkable is the fact that he went on to represent Deoria in the State Assembly even though the votes he secured amounted to just 7.30 per cent of the total electorate in the constituency (1)

Deoria 2007 is a classic example of a system of representation that has gone horribly wrong. This piece of electoral statistic is certain to shake our faith in the First-Past-The-Post ( FTTP) System that we have adopted since the first general election held in 1952. But Deoria is not the only example. Here are a few more from the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election of 2007 and the Karnataka Assembly Election held in May, 2008, which should make us sit up and re-evaluate the efficacy of the present electoral system:

Mr.Ajay Kapoor of the Indian National Congress (INC) was declared elected from Govindnagar in Uttar Pradesh. The total electorate in this constituency is 2,42,228 of which 1,10,475 (45.61 per cent ) cast their votes. Mr.Kapoor secured 29,993 votes (38.45 per cent of the votes polled) which amounted to just 7.5 per cent of the total electorate. Dr.Jyotsna Shrivastav of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly from Varanasi Cantonment. This constituency has 384757 votes of which only 121520 (31.58 per cent) cast their votes. Dr.Shrivastav secured 31642 votes (26.04 per cent of the votes polled) constituting 8.20 per cent of the total votes in this Constituency. (2)

Election data from other states in other regions throw up similar incongruities, as in the election to the Karnataka assembly in May, 2008. In this election, Mr.Appaji Channabasavaraj Shankarrao Nadagouda of INC won the Muddebihal seat. This constituency has 1,57,647 voters of which 96,367 ( 61.13 per cent) cast their votes. Mr.Nadagouda secured 24065 votes ( 24.97 per cent of the votes polled) which translates to support of 8 per cent of the voters in this constituency. In Indi assembly constituency, the winner, Dr.Bagali Sarvabhoum Satagouda of the BJP bagged 29456 votes - which is just 8.5 per cent of the total electorate of 1,73,844. (3)

The failure of FTTP has been brought about by a variety of factors. These include voter fatigue, growing cynicism about democracy and politics, atomization of the polity consequent to the emergence of regional and caste-based political parties over the last 25 years and the consequential fragmentation of votes and lowering of the threshold for victory in elections. With almost every state witnessing a triangular or quadrangular contest among political parties, every election to the state assembly or parliament is now resulting in a fractured mandate that virtually knocks the bottom out of the logic of representative democracy. Election data from across the country since 1996 abound in such examples of the disjunction between peoples’ will and electoral victories. Since only 40 – 50 per cent of the electors cast their votes and the loyalties of even this minority is torn between four or five political parties, the winner of an election to a state assembly or the lower House of Parliament usually ends up with the support of just 10 – 20 per cent of the total electors in the constituency. As a result we do not have the foggiest idea of what actually is the mandate of the majority of the electors in a given constituency. This remains a mystery for ever. What we have before us is actually the preference of a minority. However, despite mounting evidence that most legislators in India today enter democratic bodies riding on a minority vote, politicians, who are the major beneficiaries of this systemic defect, are unwilling to address the issue and search for remedies. There could be a variety of reasons for the paralysis within the political class. It could be ennui, fear of change or just plain self-interest that has prevented the political class from acknowledging this issue and undertaking an honest audit of the electoral system. To an extent, the inaction of politicians is understandable but what is truly deafening is the silence of the Election Commission of India and civil society despite the obvious collapse of the system of democratic representation.

Apart from weariness, politicians in general are gripped by the fear of the unknown and would therefore prefer to carry on with a hackneyed system, which is well past its utility rather than experiment with change. This attitude in turns spawns myths about the existing electoral and parliamentary systems and prevents a rational and scientific assessment of the efficacy of these systems for good governance and the furtherance of democracy. However, despite this wall of disinterest, some political scientists and scholars have begun to challenge these myths and to raise some relevant questions.
Mr.Arun Shourie, a prolific writer on politics and governance in India discusses the defects in the FPTP system in his book `The Parliamentary System’, which was published last year and raises questions about the “representativeness” of legislatures. Political scientists have for long believed that FTTP ensures majorities in democratic bodies whereas proportional representation promotes divisiveness. There is also the myth that FTTP promotes a two-party system. Mr.Shourie’s research challenges this assumption.

Here are some of Mr.Shourie’s conclusions in regard to the Lok Sabha election held in 2004. He found that 60 per cent of the MPs got into parliament on the basis of a minority vote. Further, if one were to examine the winner’s vote share as a percentage of the total electorate in the constituency, the conclusion would be even more disappointing. “In a word, 99 per cent of the members got into the Lok Sabha by getting less than half the electors to vote for them. Almost 60 per cent got in with the endorsement of less than 30 per cent of the electors in their constituencies”. One table in this book which examines 59 Lok Sabha constituencies in which the winners in 2004 had the support of less than 20 per cent of the total electorate is sufficient to challenge the efficacy of the present electoral system. Here are a few examples discussed by Mr.Shourie in his book:
In Basti, the winning candidate had the support of just 11 per cent of the electoral college. It was equally pathetic in many other constituencies including Robertsganj (11.4), Mohanlal Ganj (11.6), Mirzapur(12.4), Aligarh ( 12.5) and Fatehpur (12.8). (4)

The “unrepresentativeness” of governments and legislators in the states is even greater. On analysing elections to 20 state assemblies between 2001 and 2005, Mr.Shourie found that in Bihar all those who entered the assembly did so even though “70 per cent of the electors in the constituency had not endorsed them. “In Jharkhand, the figure was 95 per cent; in U.P, 96 per cent, in Uttarakhand, 97 per cent”. According to the author, even if we consider only the electors who actually voted in these elections, the percentage of candidates who succeeded on the basis of a minority of votes cast was 89 in Bihar, 80 in Chhatisgarh, 94 in Jharkhand and 96 in U.P and Uttarakhand. In several other states like Assam, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan, those who succeeded on the basis of a minority vote was between 65 and 75 per cent. (5)

My own analysis of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election held in 2007 only reinforces the argument that the electoral system has gone completely awry. Of the 403 constituencies in the state, winning candidates in just 14 constituencies secured more than 50 per cent of the votes polled, which means that 389 candidates made it to the state assembly on the support of a minority of the voters in their constituencies. In Karnataka, winning candidates in 175 of the 224 constituencies secured less than 50 per cent of the votes polled.

In the First-Past-The-Post System, whenever there are two major political parties or coalitions battling it out for a majority, a party or coalition will need around 42 - 45 per cent of the popular vote to secure a clear majority in the legislature. The point to note is that even when there were direct contests in most parts of the country between two parties or alliances, the winning party or alliance never managed to secure the mandate of more than 50 per cent of the voters who exercised their franchise in a parliamentary election. The best performance thus far has been that of the Congress Party headed by Rajiv Gandhi in the Lok Sabha election held at the end of 1984, within months of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Riding on a massive sympathy wave, the Congress Party secured just over 49 per cent of the votes polled in that election and bagged over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha. However spectacular this may seem – a three-fourths majority in the Lower House of Parliament – the fact remains that a majority of voters had voted against the Congress Party. The Congress Party routinely managed a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha and in most of the state assemblies for long years after independence with 44-47 per cent of the vote. This disjunction between vote share and seat share has indeed been the bane of the FTTP system. It has always resulted in exaggerated support with a legislative chamber for the winning party even though the support for it outside the chamber remains indifferent. Over the last two decades, the political scene has got crowded and triangular and quadrangular contests have become the order of the day. This has brought down the percentage of votes needed by a party or coalition to secure a clear majority. For example in Uttar Pradesh where you have four prominent parties in the contest, the threshold is now as low as 30 per cent. Aware of this relationship between votes and seats, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) decided over a year ago to enlarge its social base just enough to cross this threshold. Though the party was built 25-years ago on a hate-upper castes slogan, Ms.Mayawati, its leader, offered the olive branch to the Brahmins because she perceived the newly-empowered Other Backward Castes (OBC) which support the Samajwadi Party, as the bigger evil. The party held several Brahmin Sammelans in the state and laid the ground for the Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin vote base that eventually helped the party in the recent election. It also took BSP’s vote share from the 22-24 per cent band to just over 30 per cent – enough in a quadrangular electoral battle to obtain a clear majority.

The Uttar Pradesh results have grave implications for the two main national parties – the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since this state, which is located in the Hindi heartland, is the largest state in the country and has a demographic profile that is balanced and representative, the fortunes of the national parties here will largely determine electoral outcomes in national elections. The Congress Party stitched together a social coalition of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims that ensured a rich harvest of votes and seats in Uttar Pradesh since the first general elections in 1952. This social platform began to fall apart in the late 1980s resulting in a dramatic decline in this party’s electoral fortunes. For example, the party, which had secured a record 51 per cent of the vote in the state in 1984, won just 46 seats in the 425-member state assembly in 1991. By 1993, it was reduced to 28 seats. In the Lok Sabha election held in 1996, the Congress Party bagged just 5 seats and established leads in only 22 assembly segments and its vote share dropped to an abysmal 8.14 per cent. But worse was in store for the party in the Lok Sabha election held in 1998. Its share of the national vote crashed to 25.82 per cent ( the lowest since the first general election in 1952) and its vote share in Uttar Pradesh touched the nadir – it got just 6.02 per cent of the vote in this state and did not win a single seat. In 2007, the party’s vote share in Uttar Pradesh is just 8 per cent.

The other national party – the BJP - too is in a state of internal crisis and is unable to cash in on the declining fortunes of the Congress .Both the parties will have to think afresh in order to retain their hold at the federal level. The experience of these parties in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll held in 2007 should be an eye opener for both of them. The Congress secured just 8.50 per cent of the vote and polled less than 5 per cent of the votes in 202 of the 403 constituencies. Worse, the party’s vote share was less than 2 per cent in 63 of these constituencies. In Muzaffarabad the party secured an embarrassing 765 votes (0.49 per cent ) of the 1.55 lakh votes polled. The party’s tally was 768 (0.62 per cent) in Kandhla and 777 ( 0.58 per cent ) in Fatehabad. (6)

There are dozens of such examples across the state. Is this the party of Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi? As regards the BJP, it saw a spectacular rise in its fortunes in U.P after the Ayodhya movement. It secured 52 seats and 33.44 per cent of the vote in the 1996 Lok Sabha election and improved this further to 57 seats and 36.49 per cent of the vote in 1998. Thereafter, its decline began. By 2004, its vote share was down to 22.17 per cent translating to just 10 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP’s plight in Uttar Pradesh was not as bad as that of the Congress in 2007 but there is no doubt that its vote share graph is south bound. This party secured 36.50 per cent in the 1998 Lok Sabha election. In the state assembly election it notched up just 17 per cent of the vote. In some constituencies its allies like the Apna Dal bagged less than one per cent of the votes polled.

One thing that emerges from all this data is that FPTP has robbed democratic bodies of their representative character. It only promotes divisiveness and makes a mockery of accountability. It has also brought about the decline of national parties like the Congress Party and the BJP and encouraged fragmentation of the vote both at the state and national level. When this splintering of the vote is coupled with low voter turn-out, we have a situation that actually mocks at the democratic process. India being one of the most socially and culturally diverse societies in the world, it is obviously not possible for anyone to reverse the process of social and political fragmentation. However, it is legally possible to deal with the problem of low voter turn-out which is resulting in the election of MPs and MLAs who have the support of less than ten per cent of the electorate in a given constituency.

While it is true that multiplicity of parties makes government formation difficult, it is also true that low voter turn-out coupled with the FPTP system has reduced the democratic process to a complete farce. The latter problem can be effectively addressed by making voting compulsory. A law that enforces compulsory voting will at least ensure that most of the electors in a constituency do their duty of casting their ballots in an election. This, in turn will ensure that the person elected truly commands the support of the largest number of voters in the constituency. Even if the vote is splintered, compulsory voting will ensure that the candidate who commands the maximum support among the electors gets through, even if it is not the support of the majority of the voters. In any case, we will never again see a situation wherein a person enters a legislative chamber with the support of just 7 or 8 per cent of the total electorate.

Mr.Shourie has suggestions if one is willing to face the truth about the existing electoral system and its implications for governance. He offers many options to those who are ready to listen. Among them are adoption of a partial list system as in Germany and some other countries; a new electoral system in which the link between a candidate and a constituency is weakened. This can happen if the candidate is randomly selected through a lottery; compulsory voting in order to force candidates to appeal to a wider audience and to discourage sectional or chauvinistic approach to vote-gathering; and a possible switch to a presidential form of government with the President to be elected directly. In order to prevent persons from getting elected as President with a minority vote, there can be a run-off election between the two main contenders as in France so that the winner commands the support of a majority of the voters. (7)

Several others have come up with suggestions to rid the electoral system of its ills.

The Election Commission of India has suggested that the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 be amended to provide for “negative/neutral voting”. What this means is that every ballot paper should have a column which says “none of the above” after the list of candidates, so that a voter who is dissatisfied with those in the fray can reject all of them. The commission first made this proposal in 2001 and renewed it when it made a fresh package of proposals for electoral reform in 2004. The commission however has not come out in favour of compulsory voting. (8)

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) has recommended that the government and the Election Commission consider the idea of having a run off election between the first two candidates in an election in order to ensure that the winner in an electoral contest has the support of 50 percent plus one of the voters. It has said the government and the Election Commission should consult political parties and other interests that might consider themselves affected by this change “and evaluate the acceptability and benefits of this system”. As against the first-past-the-post system, a run-off contest could mean “a more representative democracy”, it said. (9)

Among all these proposals, I would like to opt for compulsory voting because I feel that this is the first step we need to take in order to lend depth and meaning to the democratic process in the country. There is nothing original or revolutionary in the idea of compulsory voting because this is already being implemented in one form or the other in 33 countries in the world and there are countries which enforced this over a century ago. According to the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a number of countries across the world have made voting compulsory. Prominent among them are Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, Argentina, Austria, Cyprus, Peru, Greece and Bolivia. Belgium set the ball rolling with the introduction of compulsory voting in 1892. Australia introduced it in 1924. We need to look at the laws pertaining to compulsory voting in all these countries and draft a law that suits our genius. The penalty that is imposed on violators of this law varies from nation to nation. For example, in Australia, those who fail to turn up for voting are fined Aus $ 20 -50. Citizens who do not pay the fine could face a prison sentence. Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus and Peru also impose fines on absentee voters. In Belgium, repeated abstention by a voter can lead to disenfranchisement. In Singapore a citizen who does not vote is removed from the list of electors. Getting back on the voters’ list can be cumbersome. In Bolivia, the penalty for not voting in an election is a salary cut whereas in Greece, the penalty could be harsher conditions for securing a passport or a driving licence. (10)

We also need to incorporate this in Article 51 A of the Constitution which deals with Fundamental Duties. Voting in elections must be made a fundamental duty. The right to vote must also become a duty to vote. The NCRWC has recommended something on these lines. It has said in its report that “duty to vote at elections” and active participation
in the democratic process of governance “should be included in Article 51 A”. (10)

The atomization of the polity and the low voter turn-out in elections (40 – 45 per cent) has reduced the democratic process to a complete sham. We can lend some authenticity to India’s democratic march by taking the difficult but inevitable decision to make voting compulsory. If we fail to do so and allow the citizens the luxury of treating elections with contempt, the day may not be far off when forces inimical to democracy will use these very arguments to put an end to the charade that is currently on and snuff out what little is left of representative democracy in India.

1.Detailed Results, Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election, 2007:
2. ibid
3. Detailed Results, Karnataka Assembly Election, 2008 :
4.Arun Shourie, The Parliamentary System, ASA Publications, New Delhi, 2007, p.34
5. Arun Shourie, The Parliamentary System, ASA Publications, New Delhi, 2007, p.32
7.Arun Shourie, The Parliamentary System, ASA Publications, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 87-93 and pp 97-99.
8. Electoral Reforms Proposals, Election Commission of India:
9. Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, Recommendation 51:
10. Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance:
11.: Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, Recommendation 28:

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