By Avinash Sanas, Ruben Mascarenhas, Swaraj Shetty, Pathik Muni and Abhishek Gharat:
The high voting percentage – 55% in last year’s BMC Polls in Mumbai was no accident.
It’s been a year now. Enough time to validate data, test assumptions, derive conclusions and to make sure that statistical data correlation, is indeed logical too.
While Mumbai is known for Bollywood, its street food, enterprise and industry; it has also had to bear the ignominy of low voter-turnouts in election after election.The legendary apathy sat aside poverty as well as prosperity, often being the topic of prime-time debates on national TV and grabbing newspaper headlines.
Social enterprise even when not for profit, is all about solving a problem, in this case increasing voter-turnout through voter engagement, ease of voting and finally voter mobilisation to the polling booth, on polling day.Voting can be said to be the hallmark of active citizenship.
The high voting percentage in last year’s local body polls in Maharashtra including BMC polls in Mumbai, was no accident but part of the ‘Maha Voter’ project, which involved months of hard work, planning and flawless execution, jointly by the Maharashtra State Election Commission, organisations like ours from civil society as well as private and public sector entities.
The underlying assumption was that voters will respond, if they feel part of the electoral process, can relate to the election and can ultimately find it easy to vote.
To begin with, the paradox lay in people’s interest in local body polls, despite it delivering well over 80% of public service delivery, to the citizen – the water we drink, our open spaces, garbage disposal, roads and footpaths, education and primary health-care.
Despite all of the above, coming under the ambit of local bodies like the BMC, people’s interest in its elections had been disproportionately low. There is palpably high excitement and interest in National (Lok Sabha) and State (Vidhan Sabha) elections, but the same would be abysmally low in the BMC polls. This had to be remedied.
Moreover, the state election commission like any other election commission in India has always run one way campaigns for voter outreach, meaning that they certainly launched mass campaigns, but without any response from the people, it was targeted to, thus not knowing it’s efficacy until voting day, where the result was binary and, more often than not, it wasn’t a resounding success. This time, the MSEC (Maharashtra State Election Commission) decided to do things differently.
We initiated a ‘Voter Pledge’ campaign parallelly through voter outreach through mass media, where in response to our outreach to vote, people could take a pledge to vote for themselves and their families.This not only could measure the efficacy of the campaign but could also help us make a course correction, if need be. An overwhelming 14,50,000 people responded to our call to vote, by giving missed calls.
We partnered with Mumbai University, and it’s Pune counterpart, along with many private universities to ensure high levels of student participation. For the first-time ever, on our request, every college was to conduct a mandatory ‘awareness drive’ about BMC Polls, and it’s importance, in every classroom, by the administration and ensures that students to take the voter pledge. A circular was issued by the respective vice-chancellors, in this regard. Thus, it was incumbent on every institution to ensure 100% Voter pledges from its students.
To further bolster participation, we commissioned an interactive chatbot on Facebook messenger – a first for any elections in the world, which helped identify your ward, search your name in the voter’s list, find your polling booth as well as information about contesting candidates based on their affidavits and comprehensive information demystifying elections.
No stone was left unturned to amplify our message and every possible medium and platform was used, both online and offline. Our videos went viral and how, receiving well over half a million views, which were both educative as well as comically oriented, based on popular stand-up culture.
Eminent citizens and Bollywood personalities endorsed our campaign too. Almost every radio channel, conducted week-long awareness drives, about the importance of the BMC polls and why one should vote.
Every Govt agency was mandated to popularise elections, be it then the Mumbai City and suburban rail networks, BEST Buses or vehicles and large hoardings across the city by the BMC. A mere traversal of 500m, across any major road or railway station, would have ensured that no one missed our call to vote, such was the campaign’s expanse and penetration.
Finally, to drive home the point, the labour commissioner was requested, to direct all organisations- private and public to ensure that their employees get a holiday to exercise their franchise. We didn’t just stop here, through CII, we asked HR departments to mark absent those employees who availed leave on the pretext of voting, but didn’t have the indelible voter mark, creating a strong disincentive to not vote.
Facebook and Twitter helped us reach millions. Facebook enabled an election day notification on users’ newsfeed, for all those profiles registered in Maharashtra, for the first time ever, for any local body polls, anywhere in the world. This was a game changer; this drove people to the polling booth and how, with individual users being able to see their friends who voted too. Twitter hosted us in their blue room and enabled us to reach over 45 million people through their platform, through discussions and trends.
At every polling booth, there was a comparative statement, of details of a candidate’s educational qualifications, criminal cases and assets, as declared in their affidavits, which was pioneering, in the history of elections.
On polling day, over 42 lakh unique names were searched through queries, on our optimised voter search facility, on our website. Public-spirited organisations had put up full page masthead ads mentioning our website, leading to virality on WhatsApp, We had anticipated an enormous spike in traffic and ensured dynamic load absorbing capacity. For the first time, in recent memory, the voter search, didn’t go down on polling day and was functional throughout.
The result – Mumbai recorded a 55% turnout, it’s highest ever in 70 years. The total voting percentage in 2012 civic elections was 45.6%, and it was 53% in both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections. Voter turnout across the 10 municipal corporations across the state also saw a spike. The Mahavoter campaign was a runaway success.
We have a made a dent and have demonstrated a working template to engage voters and drive high voter engagement and mobilisation on polling day. This goes to prove that even without big-ticket changes when many small interventions are undertaken strategically and in sync, the result can be as big as any big ticket change.
We wish to share this template with other state election commissions, so as to ensure it’s replication or iterative improvement, in the rest of the country, across various types elections to varied levels of government. With such evolution in voter outreach, a 100% voter-turnout isn’t all that far-fetched.
Avinash Sanas is Dy. State Election Commissioner, Maharashtra
Ruben, Swaraj, Pathik and Abhishek are co-founders of ‘The Litmus Test Project’
Credits – Facebook, Twitter, Phantom Films, Kraftpixel, AIB, Gupshup, Teen Bandar, Yellow Umbrella, Mapunity, Mindstorm, IMPED and Cordiform