How Gender, Mobility, and Disability Barriers Prevent Many From Voting In India

At least 986 million Indians should be voting this year. But it is likely the final numbers will be many millions less. We explain why

Himanshi, 18, who prefers to go by her first name, is a transgender woman who lives in a shelter home run by Mitr Trust, an organisation that works for the rights of LGBTQIA+ people in West Delhi’s Sitapuri neighbourhood. She does not have a voter ID yet, and is apprehensive if she will get one made anytime soon.

She wants her voter ID to reflect her gender identity and for that she has to register as one and provide a government document that states her chosen gender and name. But Himanshi has none: her Aadhaar too reflects her gender-assigned at birth and her dead name. Further, changing her Voter ID is not her immediate priority, she says. “Getting my Aadhaar updated, and securing a Transgender Certificate and ID is.”

India is readying for upcoming general elections with a record 968 million eligible voters but not all will end up voting: many young women, queer persons, and female migrant workers will face multiple barriers to voting accessibility. In the last Lok Sabha elections in 2019, reports suggest that at least 300 million registered voters (32.8%) – mostly urban, young, migrants, women and Muslims – did not vote because their addresses in the electoral rolls did not match their current place of residence. Last year, in Uttarakhand alone, 2 lakh voters were found to be missing, as per an EC survey.What stops some sections of the electorate from voting? We look at some of these groups and search for answers. Here is what we found: bureaucratic apathy, social bias and red tape make it near impossible for some Indians to exercise their franchise. Additionally, there is the added concern of names being
deleted from voter lists particularly among Dalits, religious minorities, and women. 

Voter ID Not First Priority For Trans Persons

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) in November 2020 launched a portal that provides trans persons a comprehensive platform for acquiring an ID based on their self-perceived gender identity, an important provision under the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. 

But as BehanBox has earlier reported, this process is riddled with official delays, gender bias, poor digital access and lack of sensitivity among administrative staff and unwarranted verification processes. While on paper, the process should take no more than 30 days, for many the process takes anything from between four months to a year.

Ranmeet Chaudhary (26) is a transgender man who lives in South West Delhi’s Ghitorni village. He received his TG card a few months ago, after a year’s wait. Chaudhary who is now 26, will only now be applying for a Voter ID.

Rudrani Chettri, founder of Mitr Trust, was 33 when she first updated her Voter ID to reflect her chosen gender. “This is because, of all the government documents that a transgender person needs to apply for, a Voter ID is not the first priority for them,” says Chhetri. “Aadhar becomes the primary document for accessing welfare benefits so trans persons try to get their hands on that first,” says Chhetri. 

Women Migrant Workers’ Disenfranchisement

Sunita Sai, 21, is a brick kiln worker from Chhattisgarh’s Saraipali town, who has migrated to Rajasthan’s Bubani village to find work. While she has a voter ID, she says it is unlikely that she will be able to vote in the coming general elections. The only time her brick kiln work will halt is in June when monsoon sets in. Since the elections will finish by June 4, it is unlikely that Sunita will travel back home to vote.

For Mamta Chauhan, 25, who hails from the same town in Chhattisgarh as Sunita, going back home to vote is not feasible. “We hardly get any leave. And to travel from Rajasthan to Chhattisgarh will cost us Rs 3000-4000 which we can’t afford,” says Mamta.

The 2011 Census puts the number of internal migrants in India at 450 million, a 45% surge from the 2001 census. Of this, 70% were women. Since neither their hometown nor their work destination is a permanent place of stay for them, there are no viable methods for them to vote.

For migrant women workers, along with high costs of travelling back home, the cost of safety, is another deterrent to voting, says Kanksshi Agarwal, gender activist, policy researcher and founder of Netri Foundation, an organisation that works on women’s electoral empowerment.

“There is a lack of safety in travelling alone – whether it is taking unsafe bus routes, or disconnected train routes, to get home. So most women migrant voters depend on their husbands to travel back as a couple. But this plan also has to align with other responsibilities – the annual visit home, other work, in which voting is just an added task,” notes Kanksshi.

But as we have mentioned above, migrant workers’ leaves are dependent on their contractors and the nature of the informal work they are occupied in whose timelines don’t necessarily align with voting dates. “I suspect there will be a huge number of unregistered voters, in which migrant women workers will be the leading figure. There is nothing that the ECI has done to enfranchise them,” says Kanksshi.

Political scientists Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala based on electoral roll data from 2019 calculate in their book, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections that, on average, approximately 40,000 female voters are missing from the electoral rolls in every constituency in India, a number often higher than the winning margin in many lower house electoral contests.

Sudhir Katiyar, founder of Centre For Labour Research and Action, a non-profit that works on the rights and entitlements of migrant workers in India, says the only way to include migrant workers as voters in India’s electoral process is to introduce the postal ballot system for them.

Currently, under the postal ballot system, only the following categories of people are eligible to be special voters: those holding declared electoral offices, those from the armed forces, government employees (and their spouse), those on election duty, electors subjected to preventive detention, Notified Voters, including absentee voters.

In December 2022, the ECI announced its proposal to launch Remove Voting Machines (RVMs) to enable whoever has migrated, especially migrant workers, to cast their votes from outside their home constituencies. In this proposal, RVMs would be set up in remote polling stations, i.e polling stations outside of workers’ home constituencies. This would require first identifying the number of remote-self voters, number of booths to be set up and their locations, among other factors.

However, this idea was shelved in April 2023, after most political parties who the EC sought suggestions from, objected to its implementation.  

Migrant Students And Their Concerns

The upcoming elections are also set to witness an increase in young voters with 25% more first-time voters than in 2019. Yet, several first-time voters who have moved out of their hometowns for studies do not plan to vote because their vote is registered elsewhere. “Train travel to my hometown takes two and half days. I am not sure I want to invest my time and energy in that,” says Lopamudra Tamuli, 23, a Masters student at Ambedkar University, New Delhi who hails from Tinsukia, Assam.

For student voters in hostels and other rented accommodations, the ECI has an Annexure 4.1 to be filled. This along with a signature from college/university admin, can vote from the university’s nearest constituency. But this form is neither available on the ECI’s website, nor publicised by it. BehanBox learnt about it through Young India Foundation’s (YIF) campaign that is working towards mobilising as many young people to register their votes as possible.

The ECI had recently signed an MoU with the Ministry of Education to formally integrate electoral literacy into the educational curriculum of schools and colleges. But Tiwari says that in the 150 colleges that they are campaigning to register voters, a majority of the students had no idea that such a form existed. 

Married Women Voters

Another section of voters who may lose out on voting are married women who have moved from their natal homes to another electoral constituency.

Data from PLFS on June 20-21 indicate that marriage is the primary reason for migration among women, accounting for 81%, whereas for men, it’s only 3.1%. In the 20–34 age group, 38.5% of men mention work/employment as the cause of migration, whereas only 2.7% of women do. These figures highlight a trend where men tend to migrate primarily for work/employment, often with their wives accompanying them. While women may find employment later, it is not the main catalyst for their migration.

Saina Halder, 37, a domestic worker in Delhi, moved from West Bengal’s Bangaon village to Delhi’s Saidulajab neighbourhood 11 years ago after she got married. While she has a Voter ID from Bangaon, she is not sure if she will be able to vote in this year’s elections. “Travelling will mean a loss in my wages. My priority of retaining my job is greater than voting in this election,” says Saina.

For voters who have shifted their place of residence, the ECI has the provision of Form 8 that allows voters to update their place of residence. But Halder has no idea that such a form exists. “I don’t know how to use the internet. I don’t know how I can shift my vote,” says Saina.

Mumtaz Shaikh, the programme lead at CORO India, a non-profit that works on improving the lives of India’s most marginalised people, has extensive experience of working with women from Nomadic and Denotified Tribes (NT-DNT) in Maharashtra. She says many families do not prioritise entering their daughter’s name in the voter list because “they will eventually get married and move away.”

After they migrate to their in-laws house, many women do not get their government documents issued like ration cards, or get a voter ID or update the names in their voter IDs (last name changed after marriage) until they have a child. This is so that in case the woman’s unable to conceive, the husband will desert her to get married to someone else,” says Mumtaz. NT-DNT women who have been historically marginalised, also lack any awareness or address proof, due to their migratory nature, and remain excluded from the voting process, says Shaikh.

The ECI can engage proactively to deal with these pockets of potential voters. For instance, former Chief Election Commissioner of Maharashtra, Shrikant Deshpande, had held several voter registration camps for NT-DNT women in 2022 in Maharashtra, where district collectors helped them make Aadhaar cards and ration cards. Post this, they were helped to register their names for Voter IDs. “This allowed around 12,000 NT-DNT women to register as voters,” says Mumtaz. 

Deshpande also made it easier for transgender people in the state to register their names in the electoral rolls. They can now be issued Voter IDs, simply by submitting a self-declaration stating that they are trans persons.

However, these measures are rare.

Accessibility Measures Not Implemented

The ECI has a checklist of accessible measures and infrastructure that must be provided at each polling station to facilitate voters with disabilities to cast their votes. However, these checklists remain functional only on paper, says Smitha Sadasivan, a disability rights advocate who has previously worked as an accessibility consultant with the ECI.

“Most of the awareness campaigns led by the ECI don’t reach people with disabilities. For instance, if a person has intellectual disabilities, or has some degree of visual impairment, the text which is available on the ECI website, its instructions for PwD (persons with disability) voters needs to be larger, or the language needs to be simpler and plain. It is also helpful if instead of text, pictures are used to demonstrate actions,” says Sadasivan.

Ramps, which are a part of this checklist, will often have some issues, observes Sadasivan in her experience of working with the ECI. “Some are too steep, others will have steps between them, making it inaccessible for PwD voters.”

The ECI has notified that Home Voting Facility and Postal Ballot Facility is available for senior citizens, and people with disabilities. But the latter is only for those with a benchmark disability certificate (having at least 40% disability as per the certificate or UDID Card issued by a government authority).

While the 40% cut off is based on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities Act 2016, and details the schemes and welfare benefits that are eligible for them, Sadavisan calls it exclusionary. “What happens to those with less than 40% disability? They should also be eligible to vote from home?” she says.

Kotteswara Rao, assistant director of Scarf India, a non-profit working on mental health and disability rights in Chennai, works closely with persons with psychosocial disabilities who are homeless, and runs a rehabilitation centre for them. Rao says that the lack of a fixed address disqualifies them from being added to the voter list. For a disability certificate, an Aadhaar card or any other residence proof is required. Without both, it is impossible to avail a Voter ID for PwD voters. 

While the ECI has provisions to facilitate voting processes for people without homes, by considering the place where they spend their nights everyday as their permanent address, people with psychosocial disabilities have to deal with the additional stigma of stereotypes around them, says Kotteswara Rao.

“I took two people with psychosocial disabilities who wanted to get their Voter IDs but don’t have an Aadhar or a disability certificate to a local official. But the tahsildar of Thoothukudi taluk said ‘if they’re mentally ill, what is the point of them voting?’ These people were in recovery and were functional. Then the taluk said, ‘if that is the case, then why should they apply as PwD voters? Getting a PwD certificate will be a forgery’,” says Kotteswara Rao.

BehanBox’s Feminist Election Newsroom has created accessible video voting guides to equip our audience to become an informed voter. We have explainers on “How To Register Your Vote As a First Time Voter” – English, “अपना वोट रजिस्टर कैसे करे? – Hindi”

 “How To Shift Your Vote If You Have Migrated”, “How To Update Your Gender and Name On Your Voter ID”, and “How To Mark Yourself As A PwD Voter”. 


We have more resources coming up. Keep watching this space for more. To sign up for BehanBox’s Feminist Election Newsroom, click here.

  • Ankita Dhar is a reporter with Behanbox. She is also a digital artist whose artwork has documented political prisoners in India.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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