Did Chennai not come out to vote? The reality behind low voter turnout

Names missing from voter rolls and remoteness of assigned booths contributed to poor voter turnout during the 2024 Lok Sabha elections

As the first phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections concluded on April 19th, Tamil Nadu recorded a voter turnout of 69.46 % with the three constituencies in Chennai — Chennai North, Chennai South and Chennai Central — having an overall voter percentage of 55.94% according to the Chief Electoral Officer in Tamil Nadu. Many people voiced their disappointment at the apparent lack of enthusiasm among voters in the city to exercise their franchise.

The numbers are lower compared to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 and 2014, when the voter percentages were 72.47% and 73.74% respectively. Often, after the conduct of an election, citizens, some sections of the media and even Election Commission of India (ECI) officials are quick to rue the ‘urban apathy’ that leads to lower voter turnout in big cities. But is that the only reason for Chennai residents to not exercise their franchise? The reality may be more than meets the eye.

Read more: Creating voter awareness for the Lok Sabha elections: Examples from Vyasarpadi in North Chennai

voter map
Chennai Central recorded the lowest voter turnout in Tamil Nadu with 53.19%. Map courtesy: OpenCity.
chennai voter turnout
This is how the Chennai population voted during phase-1 of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Map courtesy: OpenCity.

Deletion of names by the ECI from voter rolls without prior notice; difficulties in travel and transport to booths far away; the scorching heat on election day; voters migrating without changing their details in the rolls and a lack of initiative by the ECI to ensure every voter counts — these could be some of the factors that contributed to subdued voter turnout in the first phase of parliamentary elections in Chennai.

The case of the missing names

Shakunthala, a resident of Perambur would agree. She has lived in the same house, in the same locality for 32 years. Her polling station has always been RBCC School in Perambur. So, on April 19 when she went to the booth and found her name missing from the rolls, she was shocked and disappointed.  

“Every time during elections, be it Lok Sabha or Assembly polls, I have cast my vote without any difficulties. How is it possible that this year I’m not on the voters’ list? I showed my Voter ID card to the officials at the booth on April 19 but they said that I could not exercise my franchise because my name wasn’t in the updated electoral rolls,” says Shakunthala.

“Even if voters’ names are missing from the rolls but they have valid Voter ID cards issued by the Election Commission, the officials can still make provisions to allow such individuals to cast their votes,” she adds.

While Shakunthala was not allowed to vote, her son and daughter, who are registered in the same polling station, found their names in the electoral rolls and were able to vote. “I saw at least 15 people going back disappointed because they were not allowed to vote,” adds Shakunthala.    

Discrepancies in voter rolls

Such discrepancies in voter rolls have angered residents and raised many eyebrows. The ECI has made provisions for voters to make objections/deletions to the existing roll through form 7 and corrections to the entries/shifting of residence within the constituency through form 8. ECI guidelines mandates that before carrying out any name deletions, Block Level Officers (BLO) should visit voters for verification and issue notices informing them about any changes. But, this process is rarely followed.

“Several people, who had travelled from distant places to exercise their mandate had to return home without voting in Ward 71, Booth 19 on election day. This happened in many other places in the city. Despite reporting the issue through mainstream media, no one ensured that booth slips were distributed. When the news of voters’ names being deleted without their knowledge starts spreading, there is a lack of interest in other potential voters to step out in the extreme heat wave conditions,” says Raghukumar Choodamani, a citizen-activist and member of the Perambur Neighbourhood Development Forum.

Raghukumar was volunteering on polling day and when he came to know that names of many people in his neighbourhood had been arbitrarily removed from the rolls, he approached the polling and sector officers on duty and raised complaints.

“For them, it was only a one-day assignment, so they did not want to explore any possibility of helping those who wanted to exercise their mandate,” he added, saying that the electoral system is so badly designed that voting becomes a cumbersome process.

chennai votes
In all the three constituencies, men have outnumbered the women voters. Pic courtesy: Election Commission of India

Lackadaisical approach by the Election Commission

“The intent of achieving 100% voting by the Election Commission should have been matched by its actions as well. It needs to work continuously as an independent institution with the people on the ground, coordinating with the other government agencies and adapting to the latest technology,” says Charu Govindan, Founder-Member of Voice of People.

She points out to the indifference of ECI, especially towards marginalised communities. In Chennai, many people, who were relocated from the city to resettlement sites in the suburbs, still have their old address in the voter rolls. “Voters, especially those living in resettlement colonies and housing board tenements may find it difficult to travel a long way to cast their vote,” adds Charu.

Most voters may not go to the local Electoral Office or visit the ECI website to register themselves or to check if their names are in the electoral rolls. For many, who do not have access to technology, verifying details online is not an option. The onus is on the ECI to ensure inclusion of all voters.

“For improperly deleted Voter IDs, the ECI doesn’t provide any mechanism to reinstate the names of voters. There is no place to file a complaint by a non-registered voter,” says Sridhar Venkataraman, a social activist from Mylapore, who has studied the electoral process in India for several years.

After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Sridhar had conducted a survey in Mylapore and R A Puram in Chennai to find out discrepancies in electoral rolls.

Factors for low voter engagement

Here are some of the factors Sridhar lists that could lead to poor voter turnout:

  • The inability of the ECI to take proactive measures to include voter names in the rolls and verify other details such as address, age etc.
  • The commission employs temporary staff (mostly teachers and government officials) to supervise polling stations during the elections. This leads to lack of ownership when there are problems and a lack of accountability for the process.
  • The District Collectorate maintains the voters lists and updates are rarely made to this list. Names of deceased people remain in the rolls for years because either the relatives nor the ECI may initiate the deletion process.
  • As the population of a locality or city increases over the years, the voter rolls also expand. Since polling stations can only take a fixed number of votes on election day, the authorities may assign voters to different booth/stations.

“As people change their demographic details, the information in the rolls will also change, and new data may be added to the end of the list. This means that a family could be voting in different polling booths or even polling stations,” says Sridhar.

Voter apathy and other challenges

Experts and social activists believe voter apathy cannot be ignored, as it contributes to poor turnout in the elections, especially in cities.

Read more: Elections 2024: What Chennai residents and civic groups want their MPs to address

“General demotivation about politics and failure of political parties to engage with the citizens could be some of the reasons responsible for voter apathy. Also, unlike in the local body elections, the connection between the candidates and the people during Lok Sabha elections is not much, says Sakthi Rekha of Voice of People.

Shifting of residences, and the inconvenience of travelling from faraway places to vote in their designated booths may discourage people from casting their vote, Sakthi Rekha pointed out.

“Voters come out to vote when they feel motivated to make a difference, have a sense of belief in the system or when they favour someone and want him/her to win the elections. Chennai had a very poor turnout other than Chennai North. I feel the floods were a major reason,” says Prashanth Goutam of Arappor Iyakkam.

He added that the financially-weaker sections of society that rely on government services and schemes usually turn out in large numbers to vote. However, some of them may have lost their trust of elected representatives, because of the injustices done to them. “Chennai South and Chennai Central have usually fared poorly in voter turnout, because most of the affluent people living in these localities may not care about elections, adds Prashanth.

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