Voter Registration Can Help Migrant Workers’ Pandemic Woes

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a gruelling experience for India’s internal migrant population. The stressors of COVID-19 were especially acute during the first lockdown.

As jobs vanished, migrants without access to key social safety nets struggled to return to their places of origin. Many felt they had been left adrift by the state at a moment of crisis.

In a new paper, “Overcoming the Political Exclusion of Migrants,” published in the American Political Science Review, we ask why a sizeable share of migrants find themselves alienated from mainstream politics in India’s cities.

A wealth of evidence suggests that recent arrivals take part in elections less than do long-term urban residents. That’s a problem. Groups failing to exercise suffrage are easily forgotten by governments. The electoral incentives to cater to their interests simply don’t exist.

But the reasons behind the migrant/native participation gap are far from obvious. We considered three possible explanations.

Also Read: Do Indian Politicians ‘Favour’ Residents Over Migrants – And Why?

Possible Explanations

First, it could be that migrants maintain social, political, and economic links to their previous place of residence – usually village – even after moving.

Those enduring connections might make them unwilling to invest their energies in politics in the destination city.

Second, registering to vote in cites is harder for migrants than it is for natives. Local bureaucrats might put up barriers to prevent migrants from registering.

But more pressing, perhaps, is that migrants disproportionately lack the hometown knowledge, language skills, and documents (for example, formal proof of address) needed to make the process of acquiring a new voter ID card tick along smoothly. Given the burdens, it might be a task low down on their priority list.

A third possibility is that ant-immigrant sentiment among locals and political elites might demotivate migrants from engaging with city-based politics in the first place. If migrants expect to be sidelined in urban politics no matter what they do, then taking the trouble to register to vote may not seem worthwhile.

Case Study

We carried out a study in Delhi and Lucknow to figure out which of these factors matter(s) the most for explaining migrant disengagement.

To begin, we surveyed a group of 2,300 unregistered migrants across the two cities. We began by simply asking them whether they wanted to register to vote in their present locations.

The overwhelming majority said yes, even those with significant ties to their former homes. It doesn’t seem, then, that migrants are disconnected from city politics owing to a personal preference. Most want to get involved.

Next, we ran an experiment to see to what extent bureaucratic “hassle costs” stand in the way of migrants registering to vote locally.

We took the group of citizens from the survey who said they were interested in enrolling. And then, to half of those individuals – chosen by a lottery – we offered help at the doorstep in going through the registration process.

The help included gathering the required paperwork, completing the forms, facilitating meetings with a booth-level officer, and tracking the progress of the applications.

This assistance made a huge difference. Those offered the at-home assistance not only registered to vote significantly more than those who weren’t offered it, they were also 20 percentage points more likely to cast a city-based ballot in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The intervention raised political interest and perceptions of local political accountability, too.

Also Read: Not Even A Death Certificate for Migrants Killed During Lockdown

Anti-Migrant Sentiment?

What about the argument that migrants are opting out of urban politics because they think politicians will ostracise them, regardless of their registration status?

Our study was fielded in dense migrant settlements scattered across the two cities. We picked half of those localities, again at random. There, we publicised the fact that a migrant-focused registration drive had recently taken place.

This meant that candidates trying to woo voters in the run-up to the 2019 elections became aware that potentially large pools of new migrant votes had opened in those neighborhoods.

The politicians didn’t ignore the information, it turned out. Instead, we found they amped up pro-migrant campaign activities in areas where they learned that migrants were signing up.

That’s encouraging news. Once migrants get onto the voter rolls, it seems urban politicians do what they can to enlist them in their electoral coalitions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the tenuous situation of India’s internal migrants.

But our study suggests a clear path forward. Easing the voter registration process can increase migrants’ political integration in cities, with significant knock-on effects for their material well-being.

(Gareth Nellis is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. He tweets @GarethNellis. Nikhar Gaikwad is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He tweets @nikhargaikwad.)

This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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