Compulsory voting in Gujarat - Will it decrease voting percentage?

The Indian Express has a good primer on The Gujarat Local Authorities Law (Amendment) Bill, 2009, notified recently. This law makes it compulsory for everyone to vote with ten acceptable cases of exemptions. A fine of Rs. 100/- will be levied on the non-voters. Notice will be sent to non-voters by the election commission and person will have to reply within 30 days. If the reason for not voting falls under any of the specified ten categories, one can approach election commissioner, submit the documents for the same. Interestingly, attending marriages and other functions is also one of the acceptable reasons for non-voting and in these cases the election commissioner is supposed to verify these by looking at the pictures of the function.

While there are debates about the desirability of such law in terms of personal liberty and on the feasibility of implementation, this is an interesting context to see how incentives play out because some studies suggest that small penalties sometimes increase the behaviour for which they are penalized.

An influential paper A Fine is a Price explores the exceptions to the deterrent hypothesis which says that levying fines will reduce the undesired behaviour. This is a famous study which is also discussed in Freakanomics. There was a pre-school where students were parents were coming late to pick up their children. School staff had to stay for long hours after the school hours to take care of the kids. So, the school announced a fine of small amounts for each hour of delay in picking up. It expected that this fine will act as deterrent and parents will come and pick up their children on time, as per the conventional wisdom of the deterrent hypothesis. However, it turned out that the delays have actually increased.

Upon exploring, it was found that, parents viewed the fine as fee they are paying for going late. Previously, parents used to rush to school out of guilt. After the fine system is imposed, now parents started feeling it as their right to come late since they are paying money for the same. Since, the fee was in small amounts, it didn't matter to them much. The lesson from this is that, small penalties in cases where there is guilt or social norms associated with the act can increase the behaviour for which people are being fined for.

Another study conducted in India regarding the domestic electricity consumption demonstrates similar phenomenon. In a big housing complex in suburbs of Delhi, some people were sent letters every week which had the information about the average consumption of the other houses in the complex and the consumption of that particular household. It is expected that when people get to know this information, they benchmark their consumption with the average consumption of others and adjust their consumption accordingly. For a second group of households in the same complex, along with the letters, there was a fine of for every unit that they spend above the average and a reward if they spend below the average. The consumption of these households were compared with a control group in the same complex which didn't receive any letters or monetary benefits.

The results were surprising. The group of households which received just letters decreased their consumption by 11%. The reason could be that, households earlier didn't have any benchmarks to see if they are over consuming the electricity. With the provision of letters, they adjusted the consumption. The group of households which received both letters and monetary benefits didn't show any change in the consumption as compared with the control group. Essentially, the effect of letters is balanced by the effect of monetary benefits. This could be because, households might have now felt it as their right to spend electricity as they are paying fine for that anyways.

This is relevant to the context of Gujarat's compulsory voting laws because it satisfies the two preliminary conditions, the penalty is low (Rs. 100/-) and the act of voting is associated with moral obligation. The ease of payment procedure is a new variable in this context. If the payment procedure is simpler and if one can transfer directly from their bank account, then it justifies the behaviour of non voting, especially for the urban population who are generally at blame for not voting. If the payment procedures are cumbersome, then the fear of going through the procedures might make people go and vote. The consequences of evading the fine aren't clear yet. The alternate of increasing the amount of penalty is also tricky. In that case, then people would go for the alternate route of producing fake medical certificates which are easily available in the market.

The final outcome would be a resultant of many factors and not the one discussed above alone. The other factor is the increased sense of importance attached with the act of voting due to the enactment of the law. It is argued that laws mandating certain acts as compulsory, even if not enforced properly, could have strong signalling effect in terms of conveying the importance of the act to the general public. This could possibly increase voting. There is also an opposite effect at work here. If people feel it's necessary to not do the act, in this case voting, and if if the rules aren't enforceable, then people will break them. Once people start doing this, it breaks the stigma associated with breaking the rules, which can spillover into other aspects of public behaviour as well. People might start taking the rules, this along with others, less seriously which isn't healthy for the society.

It would be interesting to see which effect dominates in Gujarat's context.

1 comment:

  1. Voting is compulsory in some countries in national elections, e.g. Brazil, Australia, Singapore. How do they enforce it? A study of those measures may help in creating more insights on this issue.