Political Science Voter Turnout
by
André Blais, Eva Anduiza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0066

Introduction

Participating in elections is an essential component of democracy: citizens in democratic political systems are expected to be able to vote and to choose their representatives. Through their vote, either directly in presidential elections or indirectly in parliamentary elections, citizens also select among competing government alternatives. Turnout is thus a central topic in politics. Although turnout is the most widespread form of political participation, many people do not vote. Moreover, turnout varies substantially over time and across types of elections within a country as well as across countries. Who votes and under what conditions people are more likely to turn out are central questions in this literature. Explanations for turnout variation have focused both on individual characteristics (such as age, education, or political attitudes) and contextual features (such as the effect of compulsory voting, electoral systems, or party competition). Far less research has been devoted to the consequences of electoral turnout.

General Overviews

Without the universal right to freely vote in competitive elections, we cannot speak of democracy. Voting is the most frequent form of political participation: on average about 70 percent of the voting age population turns out to vote in general elections. While turnout varies across countries and elections, high turnout levels can be found all around the globe and not only in advanced democracies, according to International IDEA. As Teorell, et al. 2007 shows, other types of participation such as protesting or contacting politicians are performed by a small minority of citizens. Additionally, voting is the only form of political participation where influence is equal (one person, one vote), and unaccountable (through secret voting), as pointed out in Rokkan 1961. Although some works such as Pateman 1970 argue that citizen participation should go beyond voting, there is a relative consensus that high turnout is desirable, and thus, declining turnout rates found in many advanced democracies are a deep source of concern for many observers. The underlying assumption behind such a concern is that the legitimacy of the political system depends on a high turnout rate. This raises some thorny questions for which we still have no definitive answer. How low does turnout need to be for us to conclude that the legitimacy of government is threatened? Is a 95 percent turnout rate clearly better than a 75 percent one? Is democracy at risk with a 50 percent turnout? What about making voting compulsory? But do people really want to participate? Even for those that do not consider intense, continuous, full-fledged citizens’ participation in politics as feasible or even desirable (see Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002), voting seems to be a minimum requisite for representative democracy. As argued forcefully in Lijphart 1997, low turnout is problematic, particularly if concentrated among specific groups, as this may bring unequal representation. Though there is still debate about the actual consequences of low turnout, the normative concern has inspired research on compulsory voting as an institutional mechanism to achieve near-universal turnout. See Birch 2009 for a systematic review.

Measuring Turnout

Turnout can be measured at the individual or at the aggregate level. At the individual level, since voting is secret, the analysis of turnout and voting behavior must be based on surveys, where respondents are asked whether they voted or not. Studies using survey data to analyze turnout have privileged individual explanations for turnout variation, such as age, education, or political attitudes, variables that are usually included in survey questionnaires. As with any data source, surveys have their own problems. Reported turnout in surveys is systematically higher than actual turnout for two reasons, as Karp and Brockington 2005; Traugott and Katosh 1979; Silver, et al. 1986; Cassel 2003; and Górecki 2011 have demonstrated. First, those who do not vote are more likely not to be included in survey samples and to respond to survey questions. Second, voting is a socially desirable behavior, and some respondents are unwilling to acknowledge that they did not go to the polls. At the aggregate level, data come from official election results, usually published by authorities after the election. The first analyses of turnout, which take place before surveys are carried out, are based on aggregate turnout levels (see Tingsten 1937). Aggregate analyses, naturally, emphasize contextual explanations of turnout variation, including socioeconomic variables and institutional factors. Data for presidential and parliamentary elections are fairly readily available (and nicely presented on the International IDEA Voter Turnout Database, cited under General Overviews). However, data on regional or municipal elections are scattered and more difficult to find. The issue with aggregate data is whether the reference point should be those who have the right to vote (usually over eighteen years of age), those eligible to vote (because they meet citizenship requirements), or those who are registered to vote (included in the electoral census). The issue is particularly important in countries such as the United States where registration is voluntary, and there is a large difference between the voting age or the eligible population and registered voters. The accuracy of official turnout data may also vary across countries. It depends on the accuracy of electoral census data (whether dead electors are removed, and whether duplicates due to changes of residence are corrected), and on the fair character of elections (whether each voter can only vote once). Actually, as voter overreporting is calculated comparing survey with official data that may be inflated, it may be smaller than usually thought.

National Election Studies

Most advanced democracies have their own electoral surveys, with national representative samples, sometimes with a panel structure in which individuals are interviewed before and after the election. These are the fundamental data sources for the analysis of electoral turnout at the individual level. American National Election Studies are carried out regularly since 1948. The Swedish National Election Studies Program was established in 1954 and includes election surveys since the 1956 parliamentary election. British Election Studies have been conducted at every parliamentary election since 1964. Canadian Election Studies have been hosted by the Canadian Opinion Research Archive since 1965. Israel National Election Studies began in 1969, Dutch Parliamentary Election Studies began in 1971, and Spanish election studies since 1977. See also the European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on Voting Behaviour and Public Opinion and the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems.

Demographics

Before attempting to explain why people do or do not vote, one needs to know the socio-demographic profile of voters and abstainers. Knowing which groups have the highest and lowest turnout rates helps to formulate hypotheses for these patterns. This provides basic information about the degree of inequality in electoral participation, with possible implications about the political consequences of such inequalities.

Age

In most instances, turnout is determined by age, at least up to a certain point. Younger voters tend to turn out less than middle-aged adults. The first classic work on the matter is Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980. These universal age differences can be explained on two accounts. First, they may be the result of the life cycle: resources and motivations may increase as people grow older, get a job, get married, have children, and buy a house. These resources and motivations may perhaps diminish again when people retire and get older, less mobile, and less healthy. Indeed, this curvilinear relationship between age and turnout is often found. However, life transitions do not seem to be the main factor behind turnout increases with age, as Highton and Wolfinger 2001 demonstrates. Second, age differences in turnout may indicate that younger generations are less likely to get engaged in politics. Thus, even if they advance through these life-cycle phases, they will not necessarily increase their turnout levels. In fact, Blais, et al. 2004 points out that generational replacement may be explaining turnout decline in recent years.

Gender

Schlozman, et al. 1995 shows that the gender gap in electoral turnout is relatively small. Norris 2004 presents evidence that the gap is decreasing in advanced democracies. Gender is usually considered as a control variable, and much of its influence disappears when we take into account variables such as education. In some cases the gap has even reversed, with women voting more often than men. However the gender gap in turnout may be more important among citizens with low levels of education.

  • Norris, Pippa. “Women’s Power at the Ballot Box.” In Voter Turnout in Western Europe since 1945: A Regional Report. Edited by Rafael Lopez Pintor, Maria Gratschew, Tim Bittiger, 95–102. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2004.

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    Presents descriptive comparative data on the gender gap in turnout, with data from the CSES that shows that the gender gap is more important in certain social groups, though overall relatively small.

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  • Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Nancy Burns, and Sidney Verba. “Gender and Citizen Participation: Is There a Different Voice?” American Journal of Political Science 39.2 (1995): 267–293.

    DOI: 10.2307/2111613Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that men and women seem to be more similar than expected in a number of different participation modes, including turnout, where the difference is only about three percentage points. But men are found to be more likely to overreport voting (Traugott and Katosh 1979, cited under Measuring Turnout), so the real gap may be even smaller.

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Education

People with low levels of formal education are usually (though not always) less likely to vote, as shown in Nevitte, et al. 2009. This has implications for our understanding of why people vote (see section on resources) but also for normative concerns about who is represented (see section on the consequences of voter turnout). The causal effect of education on turnout has been examined in experimental research but with conflicting findings: Sondheimer and Green 2010 reports supportive evidence, but Berinski and Lenz 2011 presents negative results.

  • Berinski, Adam J., and Gabriel S. Lenz. “Education and Political Participation: Exploring the Causal Link.” Political Behavior 33 (2011): 357–373.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9134-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tests the causal effect of education on turnout through an examination of the rise in education levels among males induced by the Vietnam War military draft in the United States. They find little evidence that the rise in education, induced by the draft, significantly increased participation rates.

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  • Nevitte, Neil, André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, and Richard Nadeau. “Socioeconomic Status and Nonvoting: A Cross-National Comparative Analysis.” In The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems. Edited by Hans-Dieter Klingemann, 85–108. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Looks at the sociodemographic correlates of turnout in twenty-three countries, using CSES data. The authors find that education has a consistent and significant effect in the great majority of cases.

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  • Sondheimer, R. M., and D. M. Green. “Using Experiments to Estimate the Effects of Education on Voter Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (2010): 174–189.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2009.00425.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes two randomized experiments and one quasi-experiment to assess the impact of education on turnout. The authors find that exogenously induced changes in high school graduation rates have powerful effects on voter turnout.

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Income

Many studies have looked at the social class bias in turnout, with the main focus being on income differences. These studies show that the poor are less likely to vote than the rich, even controlling for education. One question is whether class (income) differences in turnout have increased over time. Leighley and Nagler 1992 reports that in the United States the class bias has at least remained constant. Rosenstone 1982 looks at changes in one’s economic situation and finds that negative changes reduce the propensity to vote.

  • Leighley, Jan E., and Jonathan Nagler. “Socioeconomic Class Bias in Turnout, 1964–1988: The Voters Remain the Same.” American Political Science Review 86 (1992): 725–736.

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    Examines the relationship between occupation, education, and income and turnout in the United States from 1964 to 1988, with a special emphasis on income differences. They conclude that the class bias has remained the same over the period.

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  • Rosenstone, Steven J. “Economic Adversity and Voter Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 26 (1982): 25–46.

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    Uses data from the Current Population Survey to ascertain the impact of unemployment, poverty, and a decline in financial well-being on turnout. The results indicate that each type of economic adversity suppresses electoral participation.

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Explaining Why Some Vote and Others Do Not

Explaining why some vote and others choose to abstain is not an easy task. There are many interpretations and theoretical models about why people do or do not vote. These can be grouped in two blocks, depending on whether they refer to the characteristics of the individual citizen or the context in which the election takes place. This has been a traditional distinction in the literature that runs parallel to the type of data that are used (survey versus election results). Recent analyses combine both individual and contextual variables, as well as their interaction effects.

The Calculus of Voting

An elegant but controversial explanatory model of turnout considers that citizens are rational decision makers and, as such, they vote if expected benefits outweigh expected costs and abstain if the costs are higher than the benefits. Downs 1957 developed the first rational choice model for voting, further developed in Riker and Ordeshook 1968 and Aldrich 1976. A crucial element of the model is that people take into account not only their expected gains (or losses) under every outcome but also what other citizens may do. Thus, citizens consider the probability that their individual vote will decide who wins the election. Since this probability is tiny (see Gelman, et al. 1998), the model predicts that most people will abstain (in large electorates). Duffy and Tavits 2008 shows in a lab experiment that the belief that one’s vote may be pivotal increases the propensity to vote. Blais 2000 provides a thorough assessment of the merits and limits of the model and concludes that in its strict version the theory is not supported by the empirical evidence. Still, the theory provides a useful framework for the study of turnout. It is fair to assume that for the great majority of people the cost of voting is very low: that is, in most cases voting takes place on a holiday, and it takes only a few minutes. But these costs may vary across different kinds of people and circumstances. Brady and McNulty 2011 suggests that sickness and distance from the polling station may hamper the probability to cast a vote. Gomez, et al. 2007 measures the impact of heavy rain or snow.

  • Aldrich, John H. “Rational Choice and Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 37 (1976): 246–278.

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    Reviews the existing evidence that supports the rational choice model account of the decision to vote or not to vote.

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  • Blais, André. To Vote or Not to Vote? The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

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    Puts to systematic empirical test the various hypotheses derived from the rational choice model. The conclusion is that the model has considerable limitations.

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  • Brady, Henry E., and John E. McNulty. “Turning Out to Vote: The Costs of Finding and Getting to the Polling Place.” American Political Science Review 105 (2011): 115–135.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055410000596Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the impact of a natural experiment whereby the Los Angeles County substantially reduced the number of voting precincts, thus increasing voting costs to many voters. They compare the turnout of the “treatment” group to that of the control group, whose polling place remained the same. They estimate that changing polling places reduced turnout by two percentage points.

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  • Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

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    Downs sets up the basic rational choice model and applies it to the study of turnout.

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  • Duffy, John, and Margit Tavits. “Beliefs and Voting Decisions: A Test of the Pivotal Voter Model.” American Journal of Political Science 52 (2008): 603–618.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2008.00332.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds support for the (rational choice) pivotal voter model in an experimental setting. Even though people overestimate the probability that their vote will be decisive, they adjust their perceptions over time, and these beliefs strongly affect the decision to vote or to abstain.

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  • Gelman, Andrew, Gary King, and W. John Boscardin. “Estimating the Probability of Events That Have Never Occurred: When Is Your Vote Decisive?” Journal of the American Statistical Association 93.441 (1998): 1–9.

    DOI: 10.1080/01621459.1998.10474082Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the 1992 US presidential election and estimates that the probability of a single vote being decisive is about 1 in 10 million for close national elections such as in 1992.

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  • Gomez, Brad T., Thomas G. Hansford, and George A. Krause. “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout and Voting in the US Presidential Elections.” Journal of Politics 69 (2007): 649–663.

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    Examines the impact of weather on voter turnout in fourteen US presidential elections. They find that rain reduces participation by one percentage point while an inch of snowfall decreases turnout by almost five points.

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  • Riker, William H., and Peter C. Ordeshook. “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting.” American Political Science Review 62 (1968): 25–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/1953324Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides the first empirical examination of the rational choice model according to which the decision to vote depends on Benefits X Probability plus Duty minus Costs.

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Resources and Motivations

Some individuals have skills that allow them to overcome the costs of voting, and they are more likely to vote. Verba, et al. 1995 offers a good example of this model applied to political participation at large. Education as a cognitive resource, income as a material resource, age as experience, and time available are considered resources that may affect turnout. Political attitudes are also an important factor. Grönlund and Setälä 2007 finds that being interested in and informed about politics, feeling that one’s actions have consequences for the political system, feeling close to a party, or feeling that voting is important for democracy are political attitudes that make people more likely to vote. Almost all accounts of the decision to vote or to abstain include some of these political attitudes. Blais and Achen 2009 argues that the main reason why most people vote in the most important elections is simply that they feel they have a duty to vote: that is, their conscience tells us that they have a moral obligation to cast a vote, and they would feel “bad” if they were not to participate. Finkel 1985 shows that both internal and external political efficacy are strongly related to the propensity to vote in elections.

  • Blais, André, and Christopher Achen. “Duty, Preference, and Turnout.” Paper presented at the ECPR Conference, Postdam, Germany, 2009.

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    Argues that sense of civic duty is a powerful motivation for voting. Shows that its impact is most substantial among those who do not care much about the outcome of the election.

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  • Finkel, Steven E. “Reciprocal Effects of Participation and Political Efficacy.” American Journal of Political Science 29 (1985): 891–913.

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    Uses panel data to examine the relationship between voting and political efficacy. Finkel does find reciprocal effects in the case of external efficacy. Internal efficacy also has an impact on the propensity to vote, but there is no reciprocal effect from voting to internal efficacy.

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  • Grönlund, Kimmo, and Maija Setälä. “Political Trust, Satisfaction and Voter Turnout.” Comparative European Politics 5.4 (2007): 400–422.

    DOI: 10.1057/palgrave.cep.6110113Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using data from the European Social Survey, this paper shows that attitudes such as trust in parliament and satisfaction with democracy are positively related to turnout.

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  • Verba, Sydney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

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    Seminal analysis of the impact of resources on political participation. The authors concede, however, that resources play a much more limited role with respect to turnout than with regard to other forms of participation.

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Personality

In an attempt to go a step further in the causal chain of electoral participation, some scholars have paid attention to individuals’ personality traits. Mondak, et al. 2010 looks at the impact of the “Big Five” factors. Fowler 2008 and Blais and Labbé St-Vincent 2011 pay particular attention to the role of altruism. Denny and Doyle 2008 reports that aggressive people are more likely to vote than their more timid counterparts.

  • Blais, André, and Simon Labbé St‐Vincent. “Personality Traits, Political Attitudes and the Propensity to Vote.” European Journal of Political Research 50.3 (2011): 395–417.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6765.2010.01935.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that personality affects turnout but only indirectly through the development of political attitudes such as political interest and sense of civic duty.

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  • Denny, Kevin, and Orla Doyle. “Political Interest, Cognitive Ability and Personality: Determinants of Voter Turnout in Britain.” British Journal of Political Science 38 (2008): 291–310.

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    Uses data from the National Cohort Development Study to investigate the determinants of voter turnout in the 1997 British election. The authors find that individuals with high ability, an aggressive personality, and a sense of civic duty are more likely to both have an interest in politics and turn out to vote.

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  • Fowler, James H. “Altruism and Turnout.” Journal of Politics 68 (2008): 674–683.

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    Argues that concern for the well-being of others is a significant factor in the decision to vote, in conjunction with strength of party identification. He shows that partisan altruists are more likely to vote that their nonpartisan or egoist peers.

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  • Mondak, Jeffery, Matthew V. Hibbing, Damarys Canache, Mitchell A. Seligson, and Mary R. Anderson. “Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior.” American Political Science Review 104 (2010): 85–110.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055409990359Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Looks at the impact of the Big Five factors (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability) on civic engagement. They find that individuals who score high on openness to experience and emotional stability are more likely to vote.

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Genetics

A new and controversial stream of research examines the possible genetic component of turnout. The hypothesis is that some genes may foster attitudes and motivations that, in interaction with contextual factors, foster electoral participation. Fowler and Dawes 2008 reports a correlation between two genes and turnout.

  • Fowler, James H., and Christopher T. Dawes. “Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout.” Journal of Politics 70 (2008): 579–594.

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    Uses the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to show that individuals with a polymorphism of the MAOA gene are more likely to have voted in the 2004 American presidential election. They also find an association between a polymorphism of the 5HTT gene and turnout, but only among the most religious persons.

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Networks

This line of research suggests that whether you vote or not depends a lot on whether your family and friends themselves vote or not, as demonstrated in Nickerson 2008 and Cutts and Fieldhouse 2009. In the same vein, Stoker and Jennings 1995 finds that being married is an important predictor of turnout in the long run even though the immediate short-term effect is negative. This network effect may take different forms. It may be simply that people in a same household go to the polls together, making it unlikely that one will stay home because he or she forgets about the election or just feels lazy at the time. Or it can be the results of explicit (and possibly intense) social pressure, spouses or friends reminding the potential recalcitrant that her personal reputation as a good citizen is at stake, as shown in Abrams, et al. 2011. Finally, Mutz 2000 shows that networks can expose citizens to political disagreement or to contradictory stimuli, which depress the propensity to vote.

  • Abrams, Samuel, Torben Iversen, and David Soskice. “Informal Social Networks and Rational Voting.” British Journal of Political Science 41.2 (2011): 229–257.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007123410000499Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Proposes an informal social network model in which people vote if their informal networks attach enough importance to voting, because voting leads to social approval and vice versa.

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  • Cutts, David, and Edward Fieldhouse. “What Small Spatial Scales Are Relevant for Individual Voters? The Importance of the Household on Turnout at the 2001 General Election.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (2009): 726–739.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2009.00397.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that the decision to vote or to abstain is powerfully affected by whether other people in the household are voting or not.

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  • Mutz, Diana. “The Consequences of Cross-Cutting Networks for Political Participation.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (2000): 838–855.

    DOI: 10.2307/3088437Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that people whose networks involve greater political disagreement are less likely to participate in politics and vote. Disagreement within one’s network produces ambivalence, which in turn discourages political engagement. Furthermore, the controversial nature of politics is perceived to pose threats to the harmony of social relationships.

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  • Nickerson, David. “Is Voting Contagious? Evidence from Two Field Experiments.” American Political Science Review 102 (2008): 49–57.

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    Shows that 60 percent of the effect of a “get out the vote” message in a field experiment is passed on to the other person in the household who did not get the message.

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  • Stoker, Laura, and M. Kent Jennings. “Life-Cycle Transitions and Political Participation: The Case of Marriage.” American Political Science Review 89 (1995): 421–436.

    DOI: 10.2307/2082435Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that getting married increases the propensity to vote but only in the long run, as the initial short-term impact is negative.

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Habit

An influential interpretation is that after a few elections many people have taken the habit of voting or not voting. The idea is that since voting is a low benefit and low-cost decision, people do not devote too much time to deciding whether to vote or not, they simply repeat what they have done in the past. Plutzer 2002 argues that as a consequence parental influences weaken over time as people become habitual voters or non-voters. Gerber, et al. 2003 shows that “get out the vote” messages increase turnout not only in a given election but also in subsequent ones, suggesting that voting may be habit forming. In the same vein, Denny and Doyle 2009 finds that whether one did or did not vote in previous elections has an independent effect on turnout, even after controlling for a host of other factors. Finally, Aldrich, et al. 2011 demonstrates that the standard correlates of turnout have a weaker impact among those who have developed a voting habit. These studies suggest that voting may have a habitual component, though it remains very difficult to distinguish empirically persistent behavior based on persistent values from that based on more or less automatic repeat.

  • Aldrich, John, J. M. Montgomery, and Wendy Wood. “Turnout as Habit.” Political Behavior 33.4 (2011): 535–563.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9148-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that “turnout habit” should be measured by an index of repeated behavior and a stable setting. They show that variables that are part of a standard model of turnout are more weakly related to voting among those with a strong habit.

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  • Denny, K., and O. Doyle. “Does Voting History Matter? Analyzing Persistence in Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (2009): 17–35.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2008.00355.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses longitudinal data from the British National Child Development Study to examine voter turnout across three elections and finds that voting in one election increases the probability of voting in a subsequent election by 13 percent.

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  • Gerber, Alan, Donald Green, and Ron Schahar. “Voting May Be Habit Forming: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment.” American Journal of Political Science 47 (2003): 540–550.

    DOI: 10.1111/1540-5907.00038Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents the results of a field experiment conducted at the time of the 1998 American presidential election in which subjects were randomly assigned to treatment conditions in which they were urged to vote. Not only were the treatment groups more likely to vote in the 1998 election, but they were also more prone to vote in the subsequent local elections held one year later.

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  • Plutzer, Eric. “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood.” American Political Science Review 96 (2002): 41–56.

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    Proposes a developmental theory of turnout. When a young citizen becomes eligible to vote for the first time, parental influences largely determine whether he or she votes or not. This influence gradually vanishes over time, however. As the person ages, she becomes a habitual voter or nonvoter.

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Context Matters

We may ask ourselves not only who is more likely to vote and why but also where and when turnout is higher (or lower) and why. The turnout decision is affected not only by personal factors but also by one’s environment. There is a vast literature that looks at overall turnout variations across space and over time and its determinants, and Geys 2006 provides a good starting point for a review of the literature. Relevant contextual variables include aspects related to the socioeconomic context, rules and institutions, and specific characteristics of a given election. Franklin 2004 argues that what matters for turnout is not so much the attitudes of individual voters but rather the characteristics of party competition. Elections that do not stimulate high turnout among young adults leave a footprint of low turnout in subsequent elections as many individuals who were new at those elections fail to vote thereafter.

  • Franklin, Mark N. Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616884Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This large comparative and longitudinal analysis show that a country’s turnout history provides a baseline for current turnout that is largely set, except for young adults. This baseline shifts as older generations leave and new generations are affected by changes in the environment, especially the degree of electoral competition.

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  • Geys, Benny. “Explaining Voter Turnout: A Review of Aggregate-Level Research.” Electoral Studies 25.4 (2006): 637–663.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2005.09.002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A good starting point, this article reviews aggregate analyses of electoral turnout, considering the effect of population-related variables, political context (closeness, campaign expenditure, political fragmentation), and institutions (compulsory voting, registration, electoral system, concurrent elections).

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Socioeconomic Context

Socioeconomic explanations of turnout were often considered in the early studies of turnout, where only aggregate data were available. Once survey data started to be available, analyses focused on the socioeconomic characteristics of the individual, and not so much on the context. Some studies have emphasized the importance of population related variables. According to Geys 2006 and its meta-analysis (cited under Context Matters), while population size and population concentration (a proxy for urbanization) do not have a significant impact on turnout, population stability does, implying that integration in the community is an important predictor of turnout. Although community size has been frequently considered as an indicator of social pressure or probability to cast a decisive vote, which in turn would encourage turnout, Remmer 2010 shows that in the less-industrialized world small population size increases turnout through clientelistic mobilization. Development theories of the 1960s emphasized the importance of socioeconomic development for political participation, as it enhances political efficacy and awareness. This general concept includes a number of closely linked indicators such as urbanization, literacy, wealth, economic performance, or income inequality. However, expectations are not always very clear: economic adversity, for instance, may plausibly increase, decrease, or have no effect on electoral turnout, as discussed in Rosenstone 1982, or its effect may depend on other variables such as the presence of a welfare state, as argued in Radcliff 1992. The effect of socioeconomic variables has received less attention than other contextual explanations of turnout such as institutions, and empirical tests have offered mixed results. Even in contexts where they are expected to matter, such as in Latin America, Fornos, et al. 2004 reports that they have little systematic effect.

  • Fornos, Carolina A., Timothy J. Power, and James C. Garand. “Explaining Voter Turnout in Latin America, 1980 to 2000.” Comparative Political Studies 37.8 (2004): 909–940.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414004267981Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Even outside Western democracies, institutions seem to matter more than socioeconomic development. In this analysis of Latin American democracies, wealth and changes in per capita income do not matter. Compulsory voting, founding elections, and commitment to preserve democratic principles are more relevant factors.

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  • Radcliff, Benjamin. “The Welfare State, Turnout, and the Economy: A Comparative Analysis.” American Political Science Review 86.2 (1992): 444–454.

    DOI: 10.2307/1964232Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that the effect of the economy is different depending on whether there is a welfare state or not: where there is a strong welfare system, economic hardship fosters participation. Citizens in economically marginal positions are more likely to be affected by economic performance.

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  • Remmer, Karen L. “Political Scale and Electoral Turnout: Evidence from the Less Industrialized World.” Comparative Political Studies 43.3 (2010): 275–303.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414009352638Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The relationship between “size” and turnout is problematic. Theoretical expectations are contradictory, but in general turnout is expected to decrease as community size increases. This study shows that, from the example of Costa Rica, electoral turnout indeed increases as community size decreases, not because of increasing social pressure or larger probabilities to cast a decisive vote, but rather because of clientelistic mobilization.

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  • Rosenstone, Steven J. “Economic Adversity and Voter Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 26.1 (1982): 25–46.

    DOI: 10.2307/2110837Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that economic adversity makes citizens withdraw from participation in elections, both at the individual and at the aggregate levels.

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The Electoral System

The role of political institutions in fostering a higher turnout (or in reducing it) has been extensively examined by political scientists. There is a huge body of literature on the topic, Jackman 1987 being among the first to systematically analyze the effect of institutional variables from a comparative perspective. The institution whose effect has been the most attentively studied has been the electoral system, the big question being whether a proportional representation system contributes to a higher turnout. Blais and Dobrzynska 1998 finds the effect to be negligible, while Selb 2009 shows that it is mediated by party competitiveness. Gallego, et al. 2011 indicates that it takes time for disproportionality to play out, as both parties and electors have to learn the logic of the electoral system. Vowles 2010 looks at the effect of New Zealand’s transition from a majoritarian to a proportional system and finds that proportionality does not reverse the decreasing trend in turnout that is due to other factors. There have also been many reforms designed to make it easier to vote, most of them allowing for early voting. Gronke, et al. 2007 provides an assessment of the impact of these reforms and finds that only postal voting has a positive effect on turnout.

  • Blais, André, and Agnieszka Dobrzynska. “Turnout in Electoral Democracies.” European Journal of Political Research 33 (1998): 239–262.

    DOI: 10.1111/1475-6765.00382Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Looks at the sociodemographic and institutional correlates of cross-national variations in turnout. The authors find that turnout is only marginally higher in Proportional Representation (PR) than in single-member district plurality systems.

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  • Gallego, Aina, Guillem Rico, and Eva Anduiza. “Disproportionality and Voter Turnout in New and Old Democracies.” Electoral Studies 31.1 (2011): 159–169.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2011.10.004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that electoral disproportionality is unrelated to turnout in early elections after democratization but that the relationship is increasingly visible as democracies grow older. On the one hand, small parties only gradually optimize their mobilization strategy. On the other hand, the difference in the turnout rates of small versus large party supporters increases with time.

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  • Gronke, Paul, Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum, and Peter A. Miller. “Early Voting and Turnout.” PS: Political Science and Politics 40 (2007): 639–645.

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    Documents the many reforms that have been introduced in America to facilitate turnout, most of them making it easier to vote before the day of the election. They find little evidence that early voting reforms increase turnout.

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  • Jackman, Robert W. “Political Institutions and Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies.” American Political Science Review 81.2 (1987): 405–423.

    DOI: 10.2307/1961959Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This classic comparative study analyzes the effect of institutions such as electoral systems, compulsory voting, unicameralism, as well as multipartyism.

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  • Selb, Peter. “A Deeper Look at the Proportionality-Turnout Nexus.” Comparative Political Studies 42.4 (2009): 527–548.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414008327427Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Addresses the question of why turnout is lower in majoritarian than in proportional systems. The analysis shows that lower net turnout in majoritarian systems is a consequence of uneven turnout across districts due to variable levels of local competitiveness.

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  • Vowles, Jack. “Electoral System Change, Generations, Competitiveness and Turnout in New Zealand, 1963–2005.” British Journal of Political Science 40 (2010): 875–895.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007123409990342Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Looks at the impact of the move from single-member plurality to mixed-member proportional on turnout in New Zealand elections. Turnout continued to decline, an effect of longer-term trends of declining competition and generational change, which persist under the new electoral system.

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Relevance of Institutions

Several institutional variables are related to the relevance or importance of the institution to be elected. Turnout is expected to be higher if the institution to be elected concentrates more powers (for instance unicameral parliaments in centralized countries), in elections that are particularly important (such as founding elections, see Fornos, et al. 2004, cited under Context Matters) or in concurrent elections. Conversely Reif and Schmitt 1980 and Schmitt 2005 show that turnout is lower in the European Parliament elections precisely because they are perceived to be second-order. However, empirical evidence does not always match these expectations. For instance Blais, et al. 2011 finds a weak relationship between decentralization and turnout. Henderson and McEwen 2010 reports that decentralization increases turnout in regional elections but does not reduce turnout in national elections. Dettrey and Schwindt-Bayer 2009 shows that powerful presidencies do not seem to affect voter turnout. In turn, Birch 2010 finds that turnout is reduced when the electoral process is perceived to be unfair.

  • Birch, Sarah. “Perceptions of Electoral Fairness and Voter Turnout.” Comparative Political Studies 43.12 (2010): 1601–1622.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414010374021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Perceptions of electoral integrity are related to electoral turnout. People are less inclined to vote when they have doubts about the fairness of the electoral process.

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  • Blais, André, Eva Anduiza, and Aina Gallego. “Decentralization and Voter Turnout.” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 29.2 (2011): 297–320.

    DOI: 10.1068/c1015rSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A comparative cross-national analysis does not show any significant effect of decentralization on turnout in national elections. A closer look at two countries, Canada and Spain, where fiscal decentralization has taken place during the past decades, shows that decentralization has contributed to reducing the turnout gap between regional and national elections.

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  • Dettrey, Bryan J., and Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer. “Voter Turnout in Presidential Democracies.” Comparative Political Studies 42.10 (2009): 1317–1338.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414009332125Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that runoff elections dampen turnout but that more powerful presidencies have little effect on voter participation.

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  • Henderson, Ailsa, and Nicola McEwen. “A Comparative Analysis of Voter Turnout in Regional Elections.” Electoral Studies 29.3 (2010): 405–416.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2010.03.012Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the few papers that analyze turnout in regional elections in nine Western democracies. It finds that regional attachment and regional autonomy are significant predictors of turnout in regional elections.

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  • Reif, Karlheinz, and Hermann Schmitt. “Nine Second‐Order National Elections: A Conceptual Framework for the Analysis of European Election Results.” European Journal of Political Research 8.1 (1980): 3–44.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6765.1980.tb00737.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The relatively low levels of turnout in the European Parliament elections (which have declined significantly since the publication of this article) are explained by their “second-order” nature. The European Parliament is not perceived as a relevant institution, and in spite of their European character, these elections are very much focused upon the national political context while eliciting lower levels of politicization and mobilization than national elections.

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  • Schmitt, Hermann. “The European Parliament Elections of June 2004: Still Second-Order?” West European Politics 28.3 (2005): 650–679.

    DOI: 10.1080/01402380500085962Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Concludes that European Parliament elections are still “second-order” elections.

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Competing Parties

An important stream of research has studied how the specificities of the political context affect turnout. In particular, the characteristics of the political situation are important here: how many parties are competing, how closely parties are linked with voters, and how close the race is. The relationship between the number of parties and turnout is not clear. While more parties could mean more possibilities from which to find an acceptable option, it seems that the more parties there are, the lower the turnout. This can be because where there are many parties, government formation usually depends on interparty bargaining. Powell 1986 also shows that the strength of the link between parties and citizens is an important predictor of turnout. Anduiza 1999 distinguishes cultural and organizational links, showing that the former are more important than the latter. In the same vein, Gray and Caul 2000 argues that the weakening of that link over time may be one reason for the recent turnout decline. There seems to be an agreement that the closeness of political elections increases turnout. Cox and Munger 1989 shows that close races make each vote more decisive: thus, parties and candidates fight for every vote. Denver and Hands 1985 reaches the same conclusion with British data. Finally, Patterson and Caldeira 1983 documents the strong positive impact of campaign spending on turnout.

  • Anduiza, Eva. ¿Individuos o sistemas? Las razones de la abstención en Europa Occidental. Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 1999.

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    This comparative analysis distinguishes, among other explanatory factors, cultural links (the extent to which society shows class, religious, and ethnic cleavages) and organizational links (the organizational density of parties in terms of membership) between parties and citizens. It seems that it is the former that matter for turnout.

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  • Cox, Gary W., and Michael C. Munger. “Closeness, Strategic Elites, and Turnout in the 1988 U.S. House Elections.” American Political Science Review 83 (1989): 217–231.

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    Shows that closeness of elections matters because it affects both citizens and elites.

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  • Denver, David, and Gordon Hands. “Marginality and Turnout in British General Elections.” British Journal of Political Science 15 (1985): 381–388.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007123400004245Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds a strong relationship between marginality in the previous election (small difference between the winner and the strongest contender) and turnout in the subsequent election.

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  • Gray, Mark, and Miki Caul. “Declining Voter Turnout in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 1950 to 1997.” Comparative Political Studies 33.9 (2000): 1091–1122.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414000033009001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    According to this analysis of eighteen industrial democracies between 1950 and 1997, turnout decline is mainly due to the decline of unions and labor parties, which have traditionally mobilized peripheral voters, and to demographic changes in the population.

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  • Patterson, Samuel C., and Gregory A. Caldeira. “Getting Out the Vote: Participation in Gubernatorial Elections.” American Political Science Review 77 (1983): 675–689.

    DOI: 10.2307/1957267Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that variations in participation in US gubernatorial elections are related much more to the mobilizing influence of campaign activism, and most particularly campaign spending, than to aspects of the electoral law or socioeconomic characteristics.

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  • Powell, G. Bingham. “American Voter Turnout in Comparative Perspective.” American Political Science Review 80.1 (1986): 17–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/1957082Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is one of the classic analyses of turnout, including both individual and aggregate evidence. Of particular interest is the concept of party-group linkage, defined as the ability to predict vote choice from socioeconomic characteristics. This variable has an important effect on turnout. The article also considers many other factors, and puts forward a good argumentation for why the electoral system should matter.

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Mobilization

One reason why some people vote may be simply that they are asked to vote (and see no reason to say “no”); likewise, others may stay home because nobody has invited them to come to the polls (and they have no compelling reason to go on their own volition). Mobilization is the active effort by parties and candidates to bring people to the polls. Rosenstone and Hansen 1993 argues that this is a crucial factor in the American context. This may be an intervening variable behind the effect of many other explanatory variables, such as proportionality (Powell 1986, cited under Competing Parties), spending (Patterson and Caldeira 1983), or closeness (Cox and Munger 1989, cited under Competing Parties). More recently, field experiments have been particularly popular, with studies assessing the impact of “get out the vote” campaigns. Gerber and Green 2000 shows that personal canvassing matters more than mail, while telephone soliciting has no effect. Arceneaux and Nickerson 2009 shows that the effect depends both on the characteristics of the voters and of the elections. Gerber, et al. 2010 demonstrates that the disclosure of past behavior and the shame of not having voted have significant effects on turnout. Green and Gerber 2008 presents an overview of the many “get out the vote” field experiments that have been conducted in the early 21st century. Mobilization happens mostly during election campaigns, and there is a large literature on how campaign characteristics affect voter turnout. In particular, a lively debate has emerged on whether negative campaigning alienates and depresses turnout or mobilizes voters. Kahn and Kenney 1999 shows that both effects take place.

  • Arceneaux, Kevin, and David W. Nickerson. “Who Is Mobilized to Vote? A Re-Analysis of 11 Field Experiments.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (2009): 1–16.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2008.00354.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines who is more influenced by a voter mobilization drive. The data uses eleven field experiments and shows that mobilization is better at stimulating turnout among low-propensity voters in prominent elections and high-propensity voters in quiescent ones.

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  • Gerber, Alan, and Donald Green. “The Effects of Canvassing, Phone Calls, and Direct Mail on Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment.” American Political Science Review 94 (2000): 653–663.

    DOI: 10.2307/2585837Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reports the results of a randomized field experiment involving approximately 30,000 registered voters. Turnout was increased substantially by personal canvassing, slightly by direct mail, and not at all by telephone calls.

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  • Gerber, Alan, Donald Green, and Christopher Larimer. “An Experiment Testing the Relative Effectiveness of Encouraging Voter Participation by Inducing Feelings of Pride and Shame.” Political Behavior 32 (2010): 409–422.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9110-4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mailings disclosing past voting behavior (versus no mail or mail not disclosing past behavior) had strong effects on turnout, and these effects were enhanced when it disclosed abstention. The results suggest that feelings of shame matter more than feelings of pride.

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  • Green, Donald, and Alan Gerber. Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008.

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    Summarizes the findings of field experiments about the effects of mobilization campaigns on voter turnout and identifies the kinds of messages and campaigns that are the most and the least likely to be successful.

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  • Kahn, Kim Fridkin, and Patrick J. Kenney. “Do Negative Campaigns Mobilize or Suppress Turnout? Clarifying the Relationship between Negativity and Participation.” American Political Science Review 93.4 (1999): 877–889.

    DOI: 10.2307/2586118Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Responds to mixed evidence about the consequences of negative campaigns, showing that while legitimate criticism mobilizes voters, insubstantial attacks make people stay at home.

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  • Patterson, Samuel C., and Gregory A. Caldeira. “Getting Out the Vote: Participation in Gubernatorial Elections.” American Political Science Review 77.3 (1983): 675–689.

    DOI: 10.2307/1957267Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the effect of several potential sources of mobilization related to the electoral campaign: campaign spending, partisan competition, electoral margin, and simultaneous races.

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  • Rosenstone, Steven J., and John Mark Hansen. Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

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    Analyzes the dynamics of citizen involvement in politics in the United States from 1952 to 1990. The authors argue that whether one votes or not depends as much on whether the voter is contacted by parties and activists as on her personal interests and resources.

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Individual Characteristics Interact with Context

Recent research has turned to multilevel analyses in which scholars assume that both the context and individual characteristics are relevant explanations of turnout. The challenge is to sort out how these two variables interact. Cross-level interactions may be interpreted in two ways. First, individual characteristics (such as resources) may be more important under certain contextual circumstances (such as high voting costs). Prior 2007 shows that content preference becomes a better predictor of political knowledge and turnout as media choice increases. Kittilson and Anderson 2011 shows that the effect of political efficacy on turnout depends on the level of system polarization. A different interpretation of a cross-level interaction effect is that contextual factors may increase turnout for some electors but not affect others, or even have the opposite effect. Anduiza 2002 shows that characteristics of the electoral system affect voters with different levels of resources and motivations differently. Within this perspective, Gay 2001 and Karp and Banducci 2008 determine whether turnout among minority groups is enhanced when that minority is better represented in parliament or government.

  • Anduiza, Eva. “Individual Characteristics, Institutional Incentives and Electoral Abstention in Western Europe.” European Journal of Political Research 41.5 (2002): 643–673.

    DOI: 10.1111/1475-6765.00025Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that the effect of institutional variables such as compulsory voting or the electoral system is not equal for all individuals. More complicated electoral systems seem to enhance turnout among the advantaged, but reduce it for disadvantaged electors.

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  • Gay, Claudine. “The Effect of Black Congressional Representation on Political Participation.” American Political Science Review 95 (2001): 589–602.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055401003021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author demonstrates that the election of blacks to Congress negatively affects white political involvement and only rarely increases political engagement among African Americans.

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  • Karp, Jeffrey A., and Susan A. Banducci. “When Politics Is Not Just a Man’s Game: Women’s Representation and Political Engagement.” Electoral Studies 27 (2008): 105–115.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2007.11.009Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Seeks to determine whether women are more likely to be engaged in politics in countries where more women are represented in the national parliament. The authors find no such effect.

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  • Kittilson, Miki Caul, and Christopher J. Anderson. “Electoral Supply and Voter Turnout.” In Citizens, Context, and Choice: How Contexts Shapes Citizens’ Electoral Choices. Edited by Russell J. Dalton and Christopher J. Anderson, 33–54. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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    Uses CSES data and examines how the electoral supply conditions the impact of political efficacy on turnout. They find that the gap in turnout between the most and the least efficacious is largest in countries with more polarized systems.

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  • Prior, Markus. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    The argument of this book is that the diversification and fragmentation of media environments condition the acquisition of information, making it more dependent on preferences for political content over entertainment. This, in turn, has consequences for political knowledge and turnout, which are becoming more unequal.

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Consequences of Voter Turnout

Traditionally, the focus of research has been on explaining variations in turnout at both the individual and aggregate levels. More recently, scholars have started to examine the consequences of turnout on voters, parties, and society writ large.

Impact on System Support

The most obvious question is whether a low turnout threatens the legitimacy of the system. At the aggregate level, turnout is often assumed to be an indicator of system support, and thus the relationship is given “by definition.” High turnout is often included as an indicator of high democratic quality. Lijphart 1997 (cited under General Overviews) asserts that a high turnout is a requisite because it ensures equal participation. In another vein, Clarke and Acock 1989 examines whether people feel more efficacious or satisfied after they have voted, even if their preferred party or candidate lost the election; but the authors find no effect.

Impact on Election Outcomes

Pundits wonder whether any specific party benefits from lower turnout rates. The conventional wisdom is that left-wing parties are disadvantaged by a lower turnout because their supporters are less prone to vote. A decline in turnout is more likely to affect individuals with fewer resources, who, in principle, are more likely to vote for left-wing parties. However, the empirical evidence is not entirely consistent with conventional wisdom. Highton and Wolfinger 2001 observes little effect. The main conclusion of the special issue of Electoral Studies (Vol. 26, issue 3, 2007) devoted to this question is that turnout does not seem to matter in any systematic way for election results; see in particular the large comparative study of Fisher 2007. Martinez and Gill 2008 argues that the consequences of turnout for election outcomes are contingent on the degree of class voting, which is decreasing. However, Hajnal and Trounstine 2005 argues that existing research minimizes the chances of finding an impact because it focuses on national elections where turnout is high and where minority groups are generally too small a percentage of the population to affect election results. They find some significant changes produced by low turnout rates among specific population groups. More recently, Hansford and Gomez 2010 reports a significant positive effect of turnout on the Democrat share of the vote.

  • Fisher, Stephen D. “(Change in) Turnout and (Change in) the Left Share of the Vote.” Electoral Studies 26.3 (2007): 598–611.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2006.10.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A large comparative and longitudinal analysis of turnout and left share of the vote in OECD countries including national and European elections and a closer look at Britain.

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  • Hajnal, Z., and J. Trounstine. “Where Turnout Matters: The Consequences of Uneven Turnout in City Politics.” Journal of Politics 67 (2005): 515–535.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2005.00327.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    By focusing on city elections they find that lower turnout reduces the representation of Latinos and Asian Americans on city councils and in the mayor’s office. For African Americans, district elections and off-cycle local elections are more important barriers to representation.

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  • Hansford, Thomas G., and Brad T. Gomez. “Estimating the Electoral Effects of Voter Turnout.” American Political Science Review 104 (2010): 268–288.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055410000109Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    By using an instrumental variable approach to overcome endogeneity problems in previous research, the authors find that turnout increases enlarge the Democratic vote share and that this partisan effect is conditioned by the partisan composition of the electorate. They also find that increases in turnout decrease the vote share of incumbent candidates/parties and lead to greater electoral volatility.

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  • Highton, Benjamin, and Raymond E. Wolfinger. “The Political Implications of Higher Turnout.” British Journal of Political Science 31 (2001): 179–223.

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    The authors find that universal turnout would bring modest changes in the United States. When the stated preferences of nonvoters are aggregated with those of voters, little change is observed.

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  • Martinez, Michael D., and Jeff Gill. “The Effects of Turnout on Partisan Outcomes in U.S. Presidential Elections 1960–2000.” Journal of Politics 67.4 (2008): 1248–1274.

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    Points to the fact that the consequences of electoral turnout for election results depend on the degree of class voting. Their analysis of five US elections from 1960 to 2000, show that Democratic advantage from higher turnout (and Republican advantage from lower turnout) have steadily ebbed since 1960, corresponding to the erosion of class cleavages in US elections.

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Impact on Policy

Older and better-educated citizens are more likely to vote. It can be assumed that this “fact” is well known by politicians. The issue is whether elected politicians pay less attention to the concerns and needs of younger and less educated citizens because these groups will not punish them at the next election if they adopt policies that they disapprove of. Griffin and Newman 2005 and Hill and Leighley 1992 show that this is indeed the case. Mueller and Stratman 2003 reports a positive relationship between turnout, a more equal income distribution, and a larger public sector. Mahler 2008 also finds a direct relation between turnout and turnout inequality, on the one hand, and social transfer policies on the other.

  • Griffin, John D., and Brian Newman. “Are Voters Better Represented?” Journal of Politics 67 (2005): 1206–1227.

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    Finds evidence showing that voter preferences predict the aggregate roll-call behavior of senators, while nonvoter preferences do not.

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  • Hill, Kim Q., and Jan E. Leighley. “The Policy Consequences of Class Bias in State Electorates.” American Journal of Political Science 36 (1992): 351–365.

    DOI: 10.2307/2111481Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tests whether an electorate disproportionately representative of higher-class citizens gets public policies in favor of its economic interests and at the expense of the interests of lower-class citizens. The authors find a negative relationship between the degree of class bias favoring the upper class and the generosity of indigenous state social welfare spending. This is explained by the underrepresentation of the poor.

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  • Mahler, Vincent. “Electoral Turnout and Income Redistribution by the State: A Cross-National Analysis of the Developed Democracies.” European Journal of Political Research 47 (2008): 161–183.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6765.2007.00726.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows the relevance of turnout and turnout inequality for income redistribution.

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  • Mueller, Dennis C., and Thomas Stratman. “The Economic Effects of Democratic Participation.” Journal of Public Economics 87 (2003): 2129–2155.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0047-2727(02)00046-4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using cross-national evidence, this article shows that high levels of democratic participation are associated with a more equal distribution of income but also a larger government sector, which in turn leads to slower economic growth.

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