In colonial India, only those with a certain level of income and property could vote. This changed in 1950, when everyone got a vote, regardless of stature. But historical election data shows letting more citizens vote did not necessarily lift political participation or competition.

A new study by Guilhem Cassan and others examines archival government data on Indian provincial elections held between 1921 and 1957. The paper studies two major reforms that extended voting rights to more citizens—in 1935 and 1950.

The first provincial elections were held in 1921. Eligibility varied across provinces, but overall, only 2.5% of the population got the right to vote, the study finds. The Government of India Act, 1935, expanded this to around 10.4% by relaxing the income threshold. In 1950, independent India got universal suffrage, which made 49% of the population eligible to vote.

But increasing the share of eligible voters by 10 percentage points reduced voter turnout by 7.1 percentage points after the 1935 reforms, and 5.1 percentage points after the universal suffrage, the study finds. The number of political candidates as a share of the registered voters did not increase significantly.

The authors conclude that new voters engaged less in political activity than expected, possibly because they were poor and less educated.

However, more voting rights increased political competition to some extent. After the 1935 law, incumbents were less likely than before to get re-elected. The changes in 1950 led to more candidates fighting per seat, but had no significant impact on incumbent advantage.

The evidence suggests that expanding suffrage is not sufficient on its own to tackle systemic barriers to political participation and competition. Additional reforms may be required, say the authors.

Also read: Enfranchisement, Political Participation and Political Competition: Evidence from Colonial India

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