Using voter turnout to predict the outcome of an election is fraught with risks.

Elections are now regularly held in several phases, and the time gap between the first phase of polling and the counting date can stretch to more than a month. In the suspenseful interim, voter turnout is seen as the key to unlock the secrets of the Electronic Voting Machines. The added interest, this time round, is the spike in voter turnout in the Assembly elections, particularly Uttar Pradesh.

Everyone agrees that the voting percentage is of considerable significance in deciding election outcomes. But that is where the agreement ends. With too many variables in the mix, trying to decipher who gained or lost from an increase or fall in the turnout is a huge, and sometimes futile, task.

As conventional wisdom would have it, a huge turnout signifies strong motivation; and as disapproval for a government is more likely to motivate a voter to turn up at the polling booth than approval, this means a vote against the incumbent.

An exception

This theory comes up against an immediate contraindication: a sympathy wave, as for instance in the 1984 election after Indira Gandhi was shot dead, could see the higher turnout working to the advantage of the ruling party. As against the 56.92 per cent polling recorded in 1980, the post-assassination election in 1984 registered 63.56 per cent polling, and the Congress retained power with a vastly improved majority in the Lok Sabha.

But this is often seen as an exception that can be worked into the rule. Sympathy for the ruling party in tragic circumstances (which could breed a feeling of insecurity among the people) is in such cases taken to be a stronger motivation for voting than disenchantment with the government. The rule is thus modified to allow for enhanced voter interest on the basis of both an anti-incumbency wave and a sympathy wave; depending on the circumstances, an anti-incumbency situation can be differentiated from a sympathy wave situation, and who gains or who loses can be read off the voting figures.

The problem is this: sympathy waves are not the only exception to the original rule. There are too many other variables, such as the nature and support base of the contesting parties and the demographic profile of the areas that report higher turnout, that need to be factored in.

Parties that depend more on floating votes than on cadre strength tend to benefit from a higher voter turnout. Thus, the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, and parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which count among their support base huge sections of unorganised workers and subaltern classes, are better positioned than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties, which have an efficiently-mobilised cadre, in the event of a large turnout. That's because committed supporters queue up at the polling stations no matter what; a spike in turnout could result from the decision of non-committed or floating voters to take part in the electoral process. Also, an increase in voter turnout usually involves women voting in larger numbers. The gap between the voting percentages of men and women, almost always wide during low turnout election, narrows during elections in which the turnout is impressively high. The Congress and its offshoots like the Trinamool, as also parties such as the AIADMK — again according to conventional wisdom — benefit more from increased participation of women voters compared to the Left parties or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Hazare factor

In Uttar Pradesh where voter turnouts have always been low, the voting percentage in the current election is relatively high – between 55.6 per cent and 60.1 per cent – in the different phases. But this is still well below the national average, and way below that of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which saw 77.8 per cent (a record) and 75.12 per cent polling respectively in the 2011 Assembly elections.

Those who identify the Congress as one of the likely beneficiaries of the high turnout in Uttar Pradesh advance the argument that the re-emergence of the Congress as a contender, even if not as a principal contender, brought some of the party's traditional vote-banks back to the booth. But this could be equally true for the Samajwadi Party, which had lost some of its traditional voters to the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha election when the big fight was essentially between the Congress and the BJP.

Political pundits are also talking about the Anna Hazare factor. Far from feeding the disillusionment with politics and elections, the Hazare movement — as this theory goes — gave new, young voters confidence in their own ability to bring about change. If that is the case, their vote would have gone against the incumbents both at the Centre and in the State, and should rule out the Congress as much as Mayawati as a beneficiary of the high turnout. Thus, in a multi-party contest in a fragmented polity, identifying who gains from a higher turnout would not be easy.

The electoral roll

In any case, some elections with a high turnout have gone in favour of the incumbent, even without a sympathy wave. In Delhi 2008, Sheila Dikshit was voted for a third consecutive term after a record turnout of 63 per cent. In the previous election, the voter turnout in Delhi had been only 53.39 per cent. In the pre-results phase, many saw the high turnout as indicative of an anti-Dikshit wave, and also as expressive of voter anger after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks; post-result the high turnout was interpreted as a vote for political stability in times of crises and as an acknowledgment of Ms Dikshit's clean image. Not surprisingly, hindsight is 20/20. Moreover, in situations such as those in West Bengal, when a ruling combination strings together one victory after another, as the Left Front did, it is nonsensical talking of a high turnout having any sort of impact.

One of the aspects not taken into consideration while discussing the higher turnout in these elections is the electoral roll itself. The Election Commission now adopts a more rigorous schedule in preparing the voters' list, and bogus voters, dead voters and duplicate entries have been eliminated to a large extent. In 2007, when U.P.'s turnout was 45.96 per cent, the number of electors was 11.35 crore. In 2012, the number of electors is 12.71 crore, an increase of 11.96 per cent. Between the 2002 and the 2007 elections, the increase was 13.82 per cent from 9.97 crore. Even in absolute terms, more voters were added between 2002 and 2007 than between 2007 and 2012.

Thus, increased voter participation can have many causes. And the voting pattern is as varied as the causes. Unless there is one pre-dominant (and, therefore, easily identifiable) factor in an election, there is no way to analyse how an increased voting percentage will affect the outcome. If the factors are varied, then one factor could counteract another, making any prediction hazardous.

The real picture, then, lies in the specifics. There is no simple co-relation between voter turnout and election outcomes. The prevailing political situation, the campaign issues, the players, anything and everything matters. Without going into the specifics of which section in which area voted in increased numbers, it is pointless to talk about how turnout will impact on the result. The turnout is dependent on voter interest, and this, in many cases, is not any one thing. No one grand theory will hold; no one methodology is adequate.

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