Priority Theme Spotlight: Nikhar Gaikwad and Gareth Nellis
Author: Jaclyn Leaver
Theme: Displacement, Migration, and Integration
In today’s Priority Theme Spotlight we spoke with EGAP members Nikhar Gaikwad (Columbia University) and Gareth Nellis (University of California, San Diego) about their recent article “Overcoming the Political Exclusion of Migrants: Theory and Experimental Evidence from India” in the American Political Science Review. We asked them about strategies for increasing migrants’ political participation in India and how these approaches might be employed in other settings where migrants are marginalized around the globe.
This study looks at ways to increase electoral participation among rural-to-urban migrants in India, focusing both on demand- and supply-side inputs. What are these inputs?
Nikhar Gaikwad and Gareth Nellis: We’d learned in previous experimental work (“Do Politicians Discriminate Against Internal Migrants?”) that India’s urban politicians are less responsive to migrants who have recently arrived in cities than they are to long-term city residents. The evidence there pointed to a clear reason why that’s the case: politicians believe migrants are less likely to be registered to vote locally, and so perceive fewer electoral returns to catering to migrant interests.
It turns out that politicians’ perceptions are well-founded in this regard. We amassed a range of survey evidence showing that those who move are less active politically in destination areas than those regions’ “native” populations. (Bear in mind we’re looking at internal migrants, who invariably have the constitutional right to vote wherever they settle.) The present paper tries to get to the bottom of why this participation gap exists.
On the demand side, it seemed possible ex ante that internal migrants themselves deliberately forgo the opportunity to get involved in city politics; to the extent that they retain strong economic, social, and political connections to their villages, they may see it as rational to go on casting votes in their former places of residence. Another demand-type factor we wanted to consider was the role played by bureaucratic hassle costs. Jumping through complex administrative hoops to get your name on the local voter rolls may not be high up on migrants’ priority list right after relocating. Importantly, those procedures might be especially onerous for migrants to complete because they require things like proof of residence documentation that migrants disproportionately lack.
On the “supply side,” we reasoned that politicians might pay migrants short shrift no matter what a newcomer’s registration status happens to be. Perhaps elites channel the concerns locals often harbor about labor market implications of influxes of migrants, or the cultural changes that new arrivals might bring about. If migrants expect that the urban political elite will turn its back to them no matter what they do, then becoming electorally active in the city may seem a futile exercise.
Our paper sets out to see which of these explanations are supported by the evidence. We study this across two cities in northern India, which are both major sites of in-migration: Delhi, the national capital, and Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state (Uttar Pradesh).
In your paper you evaluate the impact of a door-to-door campaign to facilitate voter registration among internal migrants in Delhi and Lucknow. What were the primary findings from this project?
NG and GN: We came up with three designs to probe each of the hypotheses we’ve just described. To see whether migrants are voluntarily abstaining from urban politics—essentially because they have a better outside option—we asked a large sample of urban migrants in Delhi and Lucknow whether they wished to get assistance in becoming registered to vote in the city where they were now living. Strikingly, the vast preponderance of respondents said yes to that question, indicating no real backing for the first of our demand side explanations.
The second test homed in on the hypothesis about bureaucratic frictions getting in the way of participation. We offered door-to-door help with the registration process to a randomly chosen half of the subjects who’d expressed an interest in voting locally (the other half served as the comparison group). This intervention was rolled out about 6 months before a major national election. We then measured outcomes using surveys fielded shortly after that election had occurred. The intervention’s impacts were quite dramatic. We estimate that city-based registration rates increased by 24 percentage points because of the assistance, and turnout was 20 percentage points higher. There were also upticks in political interest and perceptions of political accountability. All in all, there seem to be solid grounds to conclude that reducing the barriers to registering to vote can go far toward closing the migrant/native participation gap.
Last, we ran an information campaign in a subset of the localities where we worked, advertising the fact that a migrant-focused registration drive had taken place. Study participants in those communities reported greater exposure to electioneering in the lead-up to the election vis-à-vis areas where this information wasn’t released. Politicians weren’t ignoring newly registered migrant voters. Instead, they were proactively seeking to incorporate newly registered migrants into their coalitions.
What are the implications of these findings for migrant advocacy groups or election management bodies, among others, who focus on increasing migrants’ electoral participation?
NG and GN: The paper’s central finding is stark: Easing the process of voter registration for migrants translates into greater political participation, with positive downstream impacts too. For non-governmental advocacy groups, this implies that registration drives focused on areas of cities where migrants congregate or reside are likely well worthwhile, and probably also cost-effective. (On optimal ways to run these campaigns, see recent work by Van der Windt, Harris, and Kamindo in Kenya.)
Election management bodies should be attuned to the fact that (re-)registration procedures can place heavy burdens on those who move. Streamlining the procedure as far as possible, and ideally transitioning toward an automated system, may be key to mitigating many migrants’ de facto disenfranchisement in low- and middle-income democracies going forward.
How do these findings complement the existing literature on the political exclusion of migrants both in India and, if applicable, around the world? Are there other marginalized groups that may benefit from this kind of intervention?
NG and GN: Existing research on the political incorporation of internal migrants is sparse. While this issue has been at the heart of work done by pro-migrant NGOs, at least in India (see e.g., the activities of Aajeevika Bureau, SHRAM, and YUVA, among others), there wasn’t much of a quantitative evidence base to draw on. In the United States, one paper shows that being assigned a housing relocation voucher decreased the chances of turning out to vote in national elections. And a large experiment in France highlighted that a registration facilitation campaign was especially effective among immigrant-background households. So, we build on those findings while delving more specifically into how mobility shapes democratic behaviors and dynamics.
It is certainly possible that other categories of citizens face parallel challenges to the rural/urban migrants we focus on—and might benefit from similar interventions. Most directly, a lot of the same constraints are likely to apply to internally displaced persons in war-torn settings. Less obviously, renters (versus homeowners) might struggle to make their voices heard in politics in urban contexts, perhaps in part because they are viewed by locals as temporary residents. More research is needed.