Heat, technical glitches, or ‘sabotage’? Who is to blame for Kerala’s low voter turnout

Kerala’s average voter turnout this time is estimated at 71.3%, which is the lowest in the last 25 years.
Voters wait in queue at the Badiyadka Government School in Kasaragod
Voters wait in queue at the Badiyadka Government School in Kasaragod TNM
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At the 58th polling booth in the Badiyadka Government School of the Kasaragod Lok Sabha constituency, a relatively large queue had lined up to cast their votes as early as 6.45 in the morning on Friday, April 26. By 7.45 am, after just 48 people cast their votes, a problem with the electronic voting machine was reported and officers stopped the voting process. 

A booth agent from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) approached the voters in queue, claiming that it would take at least three hours to correct the issue, and that everyone could leave and return later. Some left upon hearing this, while many others stayed. Within 45 minutes, the problem was resolved and polling resumed. Some of the voters who left the booth, however, did not return. “I arrived early in the morning before the heat intensified. But due to the delay, I had to go back without casting my vote,” said Fathima, a voter.

Incidents of such machine glitches occurred in various parts of Kerala on polling day, causing the voting process at certain booths in Kannur, Vadakara, Kozhikode, Malappuram, and Alathur constituencies to stretch well past 10 pm. “The machine was very slow. It took a long time for us to hear the beep sound after pressing the button. This caused delays in polling,” said Mary, a voter from Ernakulam.

In Pathanamthitta, which recorded the lowest voter turnout of 63.35%, officials had to reportedly replace 40 machines due to technical glitches. At 75.74%, the highest voter turnout in the state was reported in Kannur.

Kerala’s average voter turnout this time is estimated at 71.3%, which is the lowest in the last 25 years. In 2019, the poll percentage stood at 77.84%. The United Democratic Front (UDF), the state’s Congress-led Opposition, has alleged that the machine glitches were part of a strategic effort to sabotage the election.

UDF is concerned

Political observers say that higher voter turnouts in Kerala typically favour the UDF, as has been indicated by the electoral trends over the past decades. When the voter turnout in 2004 was 71.20%, for instance, it was the Left Democratic Front (LDF) that won 19 out of 20 constituencies in the state. When the turnout went up to 73.5% in 2009, UDF secured 16 seats. The voter turnout in 2014 remained relatively the same, and the UDF gained 12 seats. The voter turnout in the 2019 election saw a sharp rise to 77.84%, and UDF won 19 constituencies.

This analysis, however, operates under the assumption that the state’s ruling LDF continues to maintain its steady support base. It also does not factor in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s growing vote share in Kerala. 

But the UDF still may have cause for concern, as the drop in voter turnout could suggest that the anti-incumbency wave against the LDF — which the Congress was banking on — has not translated into pro-UDF votes as well as they had hoped it would.

UDF’s candidate for Alappuzha, KC Venugopal, has alleged that the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) made strategic efforts to sabotage the elections. “There was no proper lighting, and by 7 pm it was dark outside polling stations. Women complained to me that they were in the queue for five hours. Machines remained faulty since morning, which led to long queues until evening. Up to 90% of the booths where delays happened are UDF strongholds. The CPI(M) was hijacking the entire system,” alleged Venugopal, who is also the general secretary (organisation) of the Congress party. 

“There was enough time to test the machines, yet many of them had issues on polling day. This was a planned effort to bring down the voter turnout,” he said, adding that thousands of names had also been removed from the voting list.

Shafi Parambil, Palakkad MLA and Vadakara’s UDF candidate, also raised similar allegations against the LDF.

Officers claim heat the villain

Speaking to TNM, Joint Chief Electoral Officer Anish T, however, said that technical glitches with the machines were comparatively lower this time compared to 2019. “Machine complaints weren't the reason for the low voter turnout,” he said.

Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Kerala, Sanjay Kaul, told the media on April 27 that it was the inexperience of polling officers and the heat that led to the delay. “Polling was completed by 6 pm in 95% of the booths. By 8 pm, 99% of booths completed polling. Only in eight booths did it take some time to complete polling. This was also because there was a huge turnout in these booths after 3 pm,” said the officer, who pointed out that people must have waited to come out and vote until 3pm due to the intense heat. 

“Many new officers were also allotted duty this time. They were taking time to ensure that the voting process went smoothly,” Sanjay Kaul said. He added that extra care was taken because the people were also cautious about complaints with the machines this time. He also said that the failure rate of machines was 5% in 2019, while it was only 0.44% this time.

An assistant returning officer told TNM that due to long queues in the morning, some people returned home and did not come back due to the severe heat. “Others waited to vote until after the sun had set, which caused the crowds in the evening,” he added.

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