Why bother analyzing election data? What’s in it for me?

A friend asked me how election analysis, the likes of 5forty3.in that I blogged about yesterday, will help him as a voter. Let me try to explain, bear with me:

The utility of the information depends on the person who is consuming the information. 5Forty3 will only equip you with the information, but it is up to you how you put it to use. Note that they don’t do exit polling (I’m guessing that means they don’t interview people as they exit out of booths).

The realtime analysis is certainly useful for politicians, but it is like a lifeline for a loosely organized category of stakeholders called “political workers.” It is they who drive apathetic voters to booths, and help increase the overall voting percentage in an area. Such analyses will certainly help workers focus their energies on particular geographies that are lagging behind in voting for whatever reason.

If you’re one of those couch potatoes who didn’t vote all morning thinking your candidate will win without your vote, one hopes that realtime trends showing low voting %age in your area will lessen your complacency to get out of your house to actually vote.

Let’s remember that a lower voting percentage is bad for the credibility of democracy in general, and the result of a particular constituency in particular. If only 10/100 people vote, the one who gets 4 votes might win but will lack the stature that comes with a clear election victory to carry his people along for the next 5 years. Also these 10 could be politically-committed voters, and the rest 90 happen to be apathetic to the result which will mean a cadre-based party like BSP or BJP will always win no matter what the situation. The result as such will reflect an immature democracy. An ideal voting percentage should be close to full, now that voters have NOTA option as well.

But the utility of such analysis is not just limited to election days. The database forms a treasure trove in analyzing the election results in an informed manner. Example questions:

  • Is secularism/communalism as big an issue as made out to be? Are people voting on that question overwhelmingly?
  • Is corruption a factor uniformly across geographies, demographies and gender?
  • and many more…

A historian might draw lessons for future elections from the past election cycles. For a historian, election is not merely a change in government, but a deep dive into the psyche of the population at a given time point in the life of a nation. For example, such analyses may provide an insight into how a nation mired in caste/religion/X/Y/Z for decades now votes on development/aspirations/A/B/C. This insight will hopefully push the elected representatives to work for 5 years on issues that really drives the voter to vote for him/her. The agenda of governance will also reflect people’s needs better if the leader has a clear idea of why people voted him/her into power.

For those who are distant observers and not actual participants, such analyses provide entertainment value, and may satisfy human curiosity. The systematic analysis of election data may also give the voter a sense of empowerment, but I wouldn’t exaggerate point that too much. However, if democracy matures, I think everyone does benefit, even those non-participants in the democratic processes.

P.S.: An initiative such as 5Forty3 is quite a common practice in Western democracies. Ex-NYT statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog (http://fivethirtyeight.com/) is best known among the breed. Dr. Praveen Patil’s team is bringing the much needed election toolkit to India.

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