India’s Corrupt, Classist Voter Registration System Keeps Migrants Politically Excluded

Nikhar Gaikwad and Gareth Nellis | 13 June 2021
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Researchers from Columbia and California universities studied migrants to Delhi and Lucknow and found that politicians seek their support if they are registered as voters.

Internal migrants, who number one seventh of the world’s population, face various challenges across much of today’s Global South. Political exclusion is commonplace. Evidence suggests that those who shift from the countryside to cities participate in destination-area politics at lower rates than local-born residents.1

What accounts for migrants’ under-representation in politics? We come up with three reasons for why mobility might induce political marginalisation. The first centres on migrants’ enduring economic and social ties to their origin regions. Migrants who maintain close links to “home” may be unwilling to refocus their political activities, opting to remain detached from political life in destination areas. Second, bureaucratic obstacles associated with participation in host regions—above all, the hassle costs of updating voter registration and navigating electoral bureaucracies—militate against engaging there. Whereas governments normally assume responsibility for initiating the registration process in advanced industrialised states, we find that 16 of the 20 most populous low- and middle-income democracies place the onus on citizens to initiate enrolment. Last, ostracism by local-born residents and their elite representatives could stand in the way of migrant integration. “Sons of the soil” parties that vilify newcomers have sprung up in Mumbai, Karachi, and in parts of South Africa and Malaysia in recent decades. It is reasonable to suppose that migrants meeting with broad-based indifference or hostility will foresee few benefits to sinking their energies on politics in host communities.

In our paper, we study the role played by these factors in undermining migrants’ political incorporation, which we conceptualise to comprise both citizen-side political engagement and elites’ readiness to include citizens in their electoral coalitions. To do so, we fielded a large randomised controlled trial in India. Our focus was on rural-to-urban migrants, and the reasons why such individuals struggle to incorporate politically in countries whose demographics are being transformed by high economic growth.

We evaluate a door-to-door campaign to facilitate voter registration among migrants to two cities: Delhi, the national capital, and Lucknow, which is the capital of India’s largest state (Uttar Pradesh) and is emblematic of a class of mid-tier cities increasingly attractive to jobseekers. Partnering with an NGO in advance of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, we recruited 2,306 migrants who lacked local voter registration documents. Half of those who expressed an interest in registering to vote in the city were then offered intensive assistance in applying for a voter identification card that enabled them to cast a ballot locally in the upcoming polls. In addition, we built an experiment to inform politicians that the registration drive had taken place, and thus to test whether attaining registered status paved the way to migrants’ full-fledged political incorporation.

Barriers to registration of internal migrants

Inertia, corruption, and classism mar India’s voter registration system. Peisakhin (2012) found the median processing time for new voter registrations to be 331 days for slum residents in Delhi. To maximise rents, “officials at election registration offices did almost everything in their power to indirectly encourage applicants … to turn to middlemen for assistance”. Non-bribe payers were additionally harassed, being asked to supply documents not required by law.

Our own qualitative interviews back these claims, while also highlighting the peculiar problems migrants face in registering to vote. Booth Level Officers (BLOs) showed animus toward migrants in interviews, referring to them as “troublemakers.” According to one officer in Delhi’s Karol Bagh assembly constituency: “Petty crimes in the area have shot up since the recent influx of migrants. They use voter IDs to get loans and then abscond. I would perform numerous background checks on a prospective tenant who is a migrant since all his ID proofs will carry my address, and it is me who stands to get bogged down by all the police paperwork in the event of an untoward incident. At the voter office, we are advised to exercise caution in our dealings with migrants.”

Local elites were skeptical about migrants’ motives for registering. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in the case of migrants, the primary motive for obtaining voter IDs is not the right to vote itself;” rather, they care only about the “potential benefits,” including a “claim to a government plot” if the slum is demolished, as well as “healthcare and education benefits,” a BLO in New Delhi assembly constituency said. Pradhans (local community leaders) flagged landlords’ worries about migrants obtaining local voter ID cards: “Landlords frequently refuse to sign the mandatory undertaking required by a tenant while filling registration Form 6. Further, landlords have, in the past, dragged the election office to court for registering migrants without their approval. Subsequently, BLOs have been as wary as the landlords themselves in dealing with tenants in bastis [slum colonies].”

Migrants harshly criticised the system in place. “The voter office is jolted out of its inactivity only days before the elections. I suspect bastis are not even a priority for them. This year BLOs arrived at Ambedkar Camp … clueless and ill-prepared,” a Karol Bagh resident said. According to another, a pradhan: “A few years ago, I had approached the Election Officer at the Dwarka voter registration office only to be told that the concerned BLO had resigned, and there was nobody assigned to our basti at the moment.” These accounts speak to migrants’ predicaments in registering to vote in destination cities.

To be sure, political parties have, at times, engaged in voter registration drives to bring on board new supporters. Yet parties’ record of migrant outreach is patchier. Knowing whether and in what way migrants will vote is challenging: India is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, has sprawling migrant-dominant slum settlements, and voters and candidates often switch parties. An analysis of representative data from the 2015 Delhi assembly election shows that recent internal migrants were 13.6 percentage points less likely to have been targeted for voter outreach by the city’s political parties compared to Delhi’s long-term residents. Overall, India’s urban migrants evidence low rates of registration under the status quo, and parties’ engagement with migrants appears to fall short of their engagement with local-born residents.

Voter registration’s bearing on political exclusion

Previewing the results of our experiment, there is little to suggest that migrants’ ongoing links to their former places of residence prevent them from incorporating politically at their destinations. Asked whether they wished to register locally, 98 percent of eligible respondents replied “yes,” indicating that voluntary disengagement is rare in our sample. This is striking since interviewed migrants reported significant social and economic ties to their prior hometowns.

By contrast, we find clear evidence to support our second theoretical claim: that bureaucratic obstacles to registering to vote hinder migrants’ electoral participation. Reducing these constraints—by providing at-home assistance in completing and submitting voter registration documents—increased migrant registration rates by 24 percentage points and next-election turnout by 20 percentage points. It also shifted downstream outcomes, raising political interest and perceptions of local political accountability.

Does elite non-responsiveness further undermine migrants’ local political incorporation? The eagerness of migrants to accept registration assistance suggests that anticipation of ostracism is not a major determinant of exclusion on the demand side of the equation. Yet, we go further to assess experimentally whether the basis for such perceptions exists. If city politicians are constrained by the anti-migrant preferences of urban electorates, then learning about the mass registration of migrant voters locally should fail to influence their campaign strategies. Against this expectation, we find that electioneering increased in the vicinity of polling stations listed in our communications to candidates. As migrants found a place on local electoral rolls and politicians learned as much, candidates began soliciting migrant support.

Overall, we conclude that stringent registration requirements—rather than “opting out” or expectations of ostracism by local political machines—drive the political incorporation gap between migrants and local-born residents in the fast-growing cities we study.

Lessons for policymakers, migrant advocacy groups 

Our study breaks new ground. We study a “patronage democracy” where access to government benefits is intimately bound to individual voting behaviour. That migrants do not always assert their political participation in their primary places of residence, despite possessing the full constitutional rights to do so, poses a significant puzzle.

Policywise, the findings are relevant for election management bodies in states witnessing urban growth. Rejecting proxy voting for internal migrants as logistically unfeasible, a recent review by the Election Commission of India recommended instead that migrants re-register in their new locations, employing the existing voter-initiated procedure. As we document, this may underestimate the multiplex and unusual challenges that migrants confront in navigating such systems. Building capacity to streamline and perhaps automate registration should be a priority for the future.

There are also lessons for migrant advocacy groups. Investing in voter registration drives is worthwhile in territories where citizens are mobile. Our results sound a note of caution, however. The registration facilitation outreach, while effective overall, had a more positive impact among migrants belonging to advantaged ethnic, religious, and educational subgroups such as non-Muslims and non-SC/STs. These lopsided benefits highlight a tradeoff. Easing registration requirements can lift the share of migrants in urban electorates, but worsens representativeness along other axes of social identification. It will be important to engineer interventions that avoid producing such political inequalities.

The impacts of political incorporation on social and economic integration need examining. Future research should explore whether registration causes migrants to be more likely to consider cities home, to forge social ties with locals, and to be more willing to pay for city-based public goods. These issues have come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the needs of millions of India’s migrants went untended by political elites and local populations.

Nikhar Gaikwad is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University. 

Gareth Nellis is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego.

This article was originally published on The Print.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.