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What needs to be done to get more young Indians to vote?

In 2009, the Election Commission of India (ECI) established the Systematic Voter’s Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme, aimed at engaging and educating voters due to gaps and stagnation in voter registration and voter turnout. The total voter turnout increased from 58.2 per cent in 2009 to 66.4 per cent in 2014, due to SVEEP and political factors.

As per Lokniti-CSDS studies, the youth vote, which grew from 58 per cent in 2009 to 68 per cent in 2014, was even higher than the average voter turnout. This also impacted the defeat of the incumbent Congress. However, the 2019 elections saw a stagnation in voter turnout of around 67.4 per cent, despite a 9.3 per cent growth in electorate size. The ECI identifies that the youth, especially those from urban areas, are less interested in the elections. This is a possible factor despite the marginal year-on-year increasing voter turnouts, thus becoming a rising concern that requires a collaborative effort.

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Voter Turnout among Youth and Others over the years.

Credit: (Source)

Multiple studies by the United Nations, the IMF, and the Institute for Public Policy Research identify a rising lack of trust in political institutions in the 21st century. The same has been alluded to in an Indian Statistical Institute report, keeping a positive correlation between political trust and an increase in representation at the base of the argument.

Corruption scandals, inadequate representation, and the belief that their vote cannot make much difference continue to alienate the youth. Furthermore, even gerontocracy is seen as a driving factor in the disconnect of young voters with democratic institutions, with the average age of elected representatives in the 17th Lok Sabha being 56.7 years.

The ECI has also recorded migration as a rising concern regarding lower voter turnouts. Around 35 per cent of the Indian population are migrants, mostly internal. A significant share of this, the youth, are unable to vote as they reside in cities where they haven’t re-registered to vote.

An alternate view

There is more to the low youth voter turnout than just apathy. In the Karnataka elections earlier this year, 18–19-year-olds had the lowest e-p (elector population) ratio — the number of people eligible to vote compared to the total population — where only 36.7 per cent registered themselves to vote. In fact, as age increased, the e-p ratio increased too, signifying a lesser coverage of the electorate within the youth. In the 2019 general elections, out of the total 900 million voters, over 45 million were eligible voters in the age group of 18–19 years, of whom less than a third voted.

Figures like these call for action for continuous new voter registrations among the youth, which includes creating awareness around the registration process and qualifying dates for enrolment (January 1, April 1, July 1, and October 1). Furthermore, despite initiatives like advanced registration at the age of 17, the self-registration mode of enrolment has not been effective.

Way forward

The youth have been visible in political movements such as the CAA protest, the India Against Corruption Movement, etc. Many young leaders spearhead the election campaigns and have contributed to the reshaping of politics. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the youth, in overall numbers, are participating more in politics and elections. Translating this power of the youth to the power of vote requires a multi-pronged and targeted approach.

The Electoral Literacy Clubs (ELCs) are a direct way of reaching out to young voters since they are constituted at the school and college levels. However, a recent study on ELCs in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, found that they have neither been universalised nor been able to achieve significant strides. The clubs require recognition under the educational departments and more collaborations with youth organisations and youth NGOs, thereby providing an institutionalised structure and recognition to the clubs. Also, as ICT apps like cVigil have not been able to achieve their objectives, prevalent platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram can instead be utilised to achieve the goal.

The ECI’s recent decision to introduce remote voting using the Multi Constituency Remote Electronic Voting Machine (RVM) has the potential to address the long-standing issue of migration. Young voters and officials should be educated extensively, to provide a voting experience like the existing process, and the ELCs can be roped in with these efforts.

Boosting voter registration calls for actions to simplify the voting processes and ensure continuous enrolment processes in collaboration with the ELCs in schools and colleges. However, the core of electoral education for the youth lies in curriculum integration. Laws and rigorous consultations with the school administrations, parents, and other stakeholders, can prevent partisan interests from misusing the curriculum to meet political ends.

Conclusion

The recent steps taken to boost youth representation should be coupled with increasing youth participation in elections. The problem of youth voter apathy is multi-faceted and requires collaborative and multi-pronged approaches. The National Youth Policy 2014 underscored that there is little co-ordinated effort along these lines, and the ECI policies should ensure this co-ordinated effort across departments. As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are within a year, efforts should be made to build the trust of the youth in political institutions.

Prioritising youth concerns on education, job opportunities, and socio-economic well-being in political campaigns can help in this direction.

(Harsha Lal and Gaurishankar S are youth leadership fellows associated with CPPR, Kochi.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 28 October 2023, 06:23 IST)

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