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Researcher: Divya Singh, PhD Student in Economics

India ranks 35th in the democracy index and is termed a “flawed democracy.”  Two of the main factors which determine whether a country is a well-functioning democracy are: free and fair elections and secure voters.  Both of these are problematic in India where elections are often associated with violence.  One common feature of electoral violence is that it tends to be concentrated around the polling booths: the designated locations where voters exercise their right to vote.  Political parties often use force and fear to intimidate voters.  This affects the pool of voters who cast votes which in turn affects who is elected.  A few states in India like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are known for the consistent election of representatives with a great number of criminal charges against them.

In the light of the above, it was unclear how the political economic equilibrium of India would be affected when the Election Commission of India in 2008 decided to enhance the safety of voters at the polling booths by deploying extra forces at the booths.  The decision employed by the Commission to identify such “critical” booths allows us to examine the effect of enhancing security at the polling booths on the turnout of women voters, total turnout and the vote share for profile of candidates who contest the elections.  Economically, these outcomes are crucial in determining the public goods that are provided in the equilibrium.  This is because the equilibrium allocation reflects the preferences of those who actually come out to vote rather than that of the whole constituency.  The preliminary results indicate that enhancing safety at the polling booths increases the turnout of women voters while there is no change in male turnout.  This is consistent with women being the soft target of election violence. Hence, when polling booths are made safer, the turnout is greater. In addition, the results also show that vote shares for candidates with different characteristics respond to treatment. Vote shares of ‘corrupt’ politicians fall; the incumbent party loses vote shares while the challenger party gains shares. This is consistent with women being anti-corruption and anti-incumbent.  However, candidates with criminal cases against them gain in vote shares. There is also evidence of a slight disadvantage for female candidates in terms of vote shares when polling booths are made more secure. This could be an indication of credibility and gender bias among women voters whereby criminality may serve as an indicator of strength and females may be viewed less suitable for leadership positions.

This study has important policy implications not only for India but for other developing countries in Asia and Africa that are struggling to maintain functional democracy. It shows that democracy can be strengthened by targeting the most ‘sensitive’ cog in democracy: the polling booths which in turn can have a substantial impact on its political economic equilibrium.