On the week where the United States had elections with the lowest turnout since the mid-term elections in 1942, (in the middle of second world war), a closer look at who votes and who doesn’t is necessary to understand if people in general and social scientists in particular should care about low turnouts.
An analysis of the socio-demographic characteristics of the abstainers shows a recurrent pattern. In most countries in the world, electoral participation is highly correlated with education level and income: poor and less educated people tend to vote less on average than rich and highly educated people. For example, in the United States, for the mid-term elections in 2002, 78% of those who earned less than 5000 dollars a year did not vote, compared to 43,5% of those who earned more than 75,000 dollars a year (Jaffrelot, 2011). For the same elections, the participation rate of high school graduates was 54.7% against 31.2% for non-high school graduates. Because people with different income and different education levels may have different preferences, this low participation of the poor is likely to affect electoral outcomes and in turn public policies. Using compulsory voting laws in Australia, Fowler (2013) shows that the increased participation of poor people led to an increase in the share of the Labor party by 7-10 percentage points.
A notable exception to this pattern is India, where electoral participation decreases with income. In the State assembly elections in Delhi in 2003, 60% of the poor declared that they had voted compared to 48.3% of the rich. Jaffrelot (2011) analyzes these surprising facts and argues that this is mostly a caste phenomenon: low castes tend to vote more than high castes. His interpretation is that the recent empowerment of low castes, related to the emergence and rise to power of low castes parties, fostered their electoral participation. High castes on the contrary, as mentioned by one of his interviewees, “have their channels through which they can get their work done. So what is the need to go and vote for this leader or that leader?”
Independently of whether it is the rich or the poor that tend to vote less, the fact that electoral participation is highly correlated with socio-demographic characteristics is seen by some as a challenge to the democratic ideal of political equality (Arend Lijphart, 1996). In particular, when “democratic responsiveness [of elected officials] depends on citizen participation” (Verba, 1996), unequal participation induces unequal political influence. So what can be done? While the above-mentioned compulsory voting laws have an immediate impact on voter turnout, other contexts favor electoral participation of populations with usually low turnout rates. In the United States, for instance, having federal elections at the same time as local elections increases the electoral participation of African Americans. The presence of candidates from minorities also seems to increase turnout rates (Vogl, 2014).
These results show that solutions that are applicable to most countries exist. The reasons why things are not changing are not totally clear, but the fact that the decision to reform institutions lies in the hands of elected politicians that benefited from the system in place may play a role.
Fowler A., Electoral and policy consequences of voter turnout: evidence from compulsory voting in Australia, Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2013, 8: 159-182.
Lijphart A., Unequal participation: democracy’s unresolved dilemma, The American Political Science Review, 1996, 91: 1-14.
Jaffrelot C., Religion, caste and politics in India, Columbia University Press, 2011.
Verba, S., The citizen as respondent: sample surveys and American democracy, The American Political Science Review, 1996, 90:1-7.
Vogl T., Race and the politics of close elections, Journal of Public Economics, 2014, 109: 101-113.