Young vs Old Voters: Cleavages in Impact

In the aftermath of Lok Sabha elections in 2014, youth and first time voters were thought to be crucial to winning elections in India. The BJP built its campaign around that idea and its success lent much credence to the young voter theory; exit poll data supported this assertion as well. It was easy to claim a generational shift in Indian polity.

But is this true across India? Does the youth vote make even a marginal difference in states that have had fertility rates below replacement levels? In states that still have above replacement fertility rates, what’s the extent of their impact?

Let’s consider India’s ‘big states’ and their electoral rolls from 2008 and 2015. It is quite stunning what the data reveals: there was actually a decline in the number of voters for Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two states that have had below replacement fertility rates for a generation or more, in this period. No other large state recorded this phenomenon.

It is likely the Election Commission cleaned up electoral rolls sometime in-between. Perhaps that partly explains the decline. The natural rate of growth of population, while low compared to other states, is still positive in both these southern states. They don’t have a declining population; at least not yet. But such a clean up, one can assume, was normally distributed. There’s no reason to think voter fraud skewed towards the states where fertility is low. So what’s of significance is the relative distance between the two southern states and others in terms of growth in electoral roll.

If we were to calculate the annual percentage growth rate of the electoral roll, both Kerala and Tamil Nadu have negative growth rates as one’d expect from declining number of voters. While that may overstate the phenomenon, what remains indisputable is that northern states that elected the BJP to power are all experiencing a surge in youth vote. And the two southern states in question – where the BJP hardly made a dent – are not. If we extrapolate this and calculate the growth for a 5 years, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will expand their electoral rolls every election cycle by 10.56% and 14.74% respectively, while Tamil Nadu and Kerala would have shrunk theirs. 

Almost all of the expansion in rolls in the northern states, is likely to have come from new voters. Their skew towards the youth vote accelerates thus. However, these young voters join a pool of electorate that’s already lost representation in relative terms to the two southern states owing to freezing of delimitation in 1976. Therefore, while the skew of UP and Bihar maybe towards youth, the value of each additional vote and those of existing votes, is set to decline.

Youth joining the electoral rolls in Tamil Nadu and Kerala though, will be joining an electoral roll that appears to be shrinking. Their parents’ generation enjoyed the merits of freezing delimitation by becoming more important in terms of representation ratio in Lok Sabha compared to the northern voter. Though their worth within their constituency was declining every cycle a generation ago because the electoral roll was still expanding in these two states. Now, however, the youth joining the shrinking rolls will get more important even within their constituency; over and above becoming ever more important than the northern voter in terms of representation ratio. Unlike the skew in north India towards the youth vote, the skew in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is towards every existing voter becoming as powerful as the new entrant every election. Thus, if anything, there’s a skew towards older voters in terms of importance, since there are more of them.

If we calculated the probability of each vote impacting the result in UP’s median Lok Sabha Constituency in the next elections, assuming the growth rates above, it worsens by a factor of e^(-32)[2]. Just the worsening factor alone will make the individual’s vote almost meaningless. This is of course on top of an absurdly low original impact probability of e^(-463). The youth in UP might as well not vote, whether or not the trend of the youth vote is a political phenomenon. And this worsening factor is likely to get applied for successive elections for the foreseeable future.

For Kerala, the impact probability will increase by a factor of e^(2.1) in the next election, over an already slightly larger but still absurdly low impact probability of e^(-389). And given fertility has been less than replacement for long, this factor of improvement in impact is likely to get higher each cycle.

In other words, in north India there are more number of increasingly less powerful young people joining the system to elect fewer representatives per person. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there are less number of relatively more powerful young people joining the system to elect more representatives per person. These two polities are so vastly different from each other that they simply cannot exist in the same electoral system for long. Either this’d mean mass migration to normalize the impact probability or secession. The former carries with it the risk of nativist surge in destination constituencies which will only result in the demand for latter.

[1] – Data sources: 1, 2 and 3.

[2] – Method of Calculation for impact probability of each vote here.