- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0066
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0066
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.
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.
Birch, Sarah. Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Presents an exhaustive review of the use and origins of compulsory voting, the empirical evidence about its consequences, and the arguments for and against it.
Hibbing, John, and Elisabeth Theiss-Morse. Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Argues that Americans want to be involved in politics as little as possible, while keeping an eye on politicians they do not trust at all.
IDEA provides comprehensive data on turnout in presidential and parliamentary elections all over the world since 1945.
Lijphart, Arendt. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.” American Political Science Review 91.1 (1997): 1–14.
Lijphart defends the importance of universal, hence equal, electoral participation. He argues that compulsory voting is an adequate means to achieve equal participation.
Pateman, Carole. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
This is the classic theoretical statement that the full-fledged participation of citizens, well beyond voting, is required for democracy to flourish.
Rokkan, Stein. “Mass Suffrage, Secret Voting and Political Participation.” European Journal of Sociology 2.1 (1961): 132–152.
Underlines three characteristics that make electoral participation a unique form of political participation: universality of access, equality of influence, and unaccountability. Through a long historical process the vote has become a universal right, equal, and secret.
Teorell, Jan, José R. Montero, and Mariano Torcal. “Political Participation: Mapping the Terrain.” In Citizenship and Involvement in European Democracies: A Comparative Analysis. Edited by Jan W. Van Deth, Jos Ram N. Montero, and Anders Westholm, 334–357. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2007.
Compares voting to other forms of political participation using data from the first wave of the European Social Survey. The analysis shows the distinctive character of turnout as a mode of political participation.
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