In one of our casual conversations, my cousin, a first time voter, posed a question that stirred an irrepressible train of queries in my head. It convincingly drove home the import of Leonardo Da Vinci’s quote ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’. In the context of the imminent assembly elections in Tamilnadu, she plainly asked me “How to decide whom should I vote for?”. My deer-in-a-headlight moment made me realize that the question had no easy answers. It is one thing for opinionated adults and habituated elders to vote. However, it’s quite another to show the huge legion of energetic, hitherto apolitical first-time voters, the criteria on which they must decide their voting preferences. Given that the majority of the population ‘become’ political only on the eve of elections, it is imperative to at least attempt to make this limited engagement, a fruitful, fulfilling affair.

While ruminating on this front, two key questions seem to emerge. The first question, ‘Why do we vote?’, addresses the motivation and incentives behind one’s decision to participate in voting behavior. After all, not every eligible voter turns up at the polling booth. For instance, the voter turnout percentage for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was 67.1%. The second question, which is related to the first, is ‘How do we vote?’. Stated otherwise, having decided to vote, the question seeks to understand the ways by which we choose our preferred candidate/party from the rest.

Answering the ‘why’ question requires us to set the context in which voting occurs. Put simply, every eligible voter is expected to take time out of his schedule on polling day, cast his vote based on certain determinants (his liking for party, ideology, candidate etc.) with no guarantee that his choice yields personal benefits i.e. the cost or effort is personal while the reward, if any, is social. While an academic might argue that voting is one’s democratic right under Article 326 of the Indian constitution and needs to be exercised in order to hold governments accountable, a layman critic simply has no answer to his question, ‘What’s in it for me?’.

Research literature in political psychology reveals that voting behavior has high correlation with altruistic tendencies. A person who is naturally inclined to think pro-socially is more likely to resolve the ‘social dilemma’ stated above and vote, than a self-centered person. The need for conformity or to ‘fit in’ is another strong extrinsic motivator. Apart from these social determinants, individual factors like the opportunity for self-expression, belief of having an impact on final outcomes of the election etc. may also come into play. The latter, especially prevalent in loyalist voters, is termed by Melissa Avecedo as the ‘voter’s illusion’, where a person enthusiastically votes believing that others will follow him to have a cumulative final impact on the results. Apart from the well-known role of identity-centric affiliation (along caste, language, religion and regional lines), these studies present a fascinating sneak-peak into a voter’s mind and her various motivators.

Among those motivated enough to vote, the ‘how’ question seeks to identify the factors that influence a voter’s choice. In decision making, theories identify two modes of thinking — Unconscious, intuitive thinking ruled by emotions (System 1 as Daniel Kahneman puts it) and Conscious, deliberative thinking ruled by rationality (System 2). One might be forgiven if he guesses that rational thinking prevails in an activity as important as elections, but several studies show the disproportionate effect of affect(emotions) in voting choice decisions. A recent study lucidly explains that it is because humans are more prone to emotional appeals (based on fear, anger, both real and imagined) that such tactics are used in political campaigning and not the other way round. More importantly, this effect is just as strong, if not more, on educated voters who consider themselves as objective. This explains how emotional tendencies like loyalty, general distrust in politics, anti-incumbency and ideological affinity play a substantial role in voting outcomes. Other studies also indicate that qualities like attractiveness of candidates are more influential than we consider them to be. In the Indian context, one votes for a party, not for a candidate. One only needs to try and remember his/her local MP and MLA to illustrate this point!

As interesting it is to explore why/how do people vote, the more important question, with which we started, is how should people vote. Pursuing this thought, we could also ask, ‘can and should there be an ideal framework based on which we might decide our voting choices?’. Let us dare to hypothesize how an ideal voter must think like. She could choose her candidate by assessing which party, if voted for, would be most beneficial for a) herself and her community b) her state as a whole. Given that people largely want their most basic, immediate needs satisfied first (like good roads, clean water, reliable power), we could further assume that most of them use criteria (a) than (b). For both the options, a good place to start is the objective, comparative analysis of the manifestos of parties. If she is a farmer, she might easily find what the parties in fray have promised for the farming community, compare them and take a decision. However, if she is a trans-person or a person with disability, she won’t even have basic information to make her decision, as is often the case. This simplistic exercise is only to point out that it’s almost impossible to find a universal rational framework for deciding one’s voting choice!

Despite many attempts, research studies have not conclusively understood why and how people vote. The variance between opinion polls, exit polls and actual results is a case in point. In sum, each voter has a personalized context to vote, and in doing so, looking for even a marginal improvement in their micro-world of wants and needs, which is subject to multiple influences, intrinsic and extrinsic, immediate and chronic. One has no right to wail and whine later if one isn’t a willing participant in the ‘festival of democracies’. In consuming and processing inputs before deciding on our preferred candidate, it’s useful to keep in mind the unconscious influence of emotions, biases, hateful content which is more pertinent in the current circumstances of post-truth, fake-news, siloed consumption of facts pandering to our confirmation biases and micro-targeting (Remember Cambridge Analytica!). One might feel being left with more questions than answers, to which I reply with the Zen quote, “We don’t find the answers, we lose the questions”. My cousin isn’t going to like it though.