Is India unique in having higher voter turnout among the poor than the middle class and rich?

Perry Anderson writes of “a truly distinguishing feature of Indian democracy – one that sets it apart from any other society in the world”:

In India alone, the poor form not just the overwhelming majority of the electorate, but vote in larger numbers than the better-off. Everywhere else, without exception, the ratio of electoral participation is the reverse.

Is that true? I had no idea. I’ve looked at some statistics comparing votes for left and right by income in different countries, but I’ve never thought about comparative turnout.

Unlike in the U.S., political parties in India make strong direct appeals to poor voters. But I imagine this would be the case in many low-income societies, yet according to Anderson it is only in India that poor vote at higher rates than middle class and rich. I’m sure my comparativist colleagues understand this better…

Before posting, I ran this past Monkey Cage comparative politics expert Josh Tucker, who sent along sone references on the general topic (but not India in particular):

The idea that the rich vote at higher rates than the poor is consistent across a wide range of countries. The article that comes to mind is one by Bing Powell:

Powell, G. Bingham. 1986. “American Voting Turnout in Comparative Perspective.” American Political Science Review 80, no. 1 (March 1986): 17-43. (J)

But that is definitely OECD countries.

You might also take a look at:

Franklin, Mark, “Electoral Participation,” p.216-235, in LeDuc, Lawrence, Richard G. Niemi, and Pippa Norris. 1996. Comparing democracies : elections and voting in global perspective. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

although I’m sure there is some later edition of this.

The Russ Dalton “Citizen Politics” series would likely have something on this as well, although I’m guessing all of this is heavily slanted towards Europe.

5 Responses to Is India unique in having higher voter turnout among the poor than the middle class and rich?

  1. Pedro Magalhães September 29, 2012 at 5:37 am #

    There’s a discussion of that issue here: Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, “Studying Elections in India: Scientific and Political Debates” ( In any case, I think the evidence does not point to the poor voting at higher rates than the rich in India, but rather for income being unrelated with turnout ( And Franklin’s mentioned chapter actually makes the argument that income is weakly related to turnout in most (Western) democracies too, with the exception of the US. So India may be somewhat less peculiar than what Anderson suggests.

  2. Patel September 29, 2012 at 7:20 am #

    Not in a democracy, but Lisa Blaydes’s book on elections in Mubarak’s Egypt has a chapter on why poor Egyptians were more likely to vote than middle class and wealthy Egyptians. She has turnout data. There is also work on clientelism in Latin America that argues that patronage is more efficiently targeted at poor voters than wealthier ones. I do not remember if they provide turnout data or suggest that the poor would be more likely to vote than the better off, but the work of Calvo and Murillo and of Stokes comes to mind.

  3. liz September 29, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    There are several studies using Afrobarometer data that show higher turnout among the poor in Africa. I haven’t read enough about turnout lately to know whether actual turnout data support the survey data (or whether such studies have even been done), but the survey findings have been fairly consistent across time.

  4. Elliott Green September 29, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    I think the non-OECD data suggests that India is the norm, not the exception. See for instance the relevant chapters in A. Krishna, ed., Poverty, Participation and Democracy (CUP, 2008). One such chapter by Adam Przeworski ( summarizes the evidence by suggesting that, at the very least, there is no relationship between income and participation, and in fact some evidence from Africa suggests that the poor vote more than the rich. In fact, as Przeworski argues, it is the US which is the real outlier whereby the poor vote much less than the rich.

  5. Michael September 29, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Historically in India, votes among the rural poor are not so much cast as they are sold by local political bosses. Most of the “voters” are illiterate and concerned mainly with keeping food in their families mouths. The political bosses have an economic incentive for getting as many votes as possible; hence the extremely high turnout. Turnout among the middle class is lowere, because they recognize the futility of voting in a corrupt system. Now I’m sure this is changing, just like everything in India. Probably it will become less of a problem, and has already been diminishing, as the population becomes more literate and less rural.