A Tale of Two Turnout Functions: Effects of Development on Voter Turnout across Countries

Many researchers have tried to find drivers of electoral turnout without reaching any consensus. Different studies in the past have even produced contradictory results, but Daniel Stockemer has found some interesting new evidence on this issue. Specifically, he presents evidence that what brings people out to the voting booths can vary widely between developed and developing countries.

Voter turnout has a central role in democratic regimes. Turnout is a key factor in legitimizing governments, and in the overall stability of regimes. Notwithstanding, recent studies examining voter turnout from a comparative perspective show that voter turnout has been decreasing in both established and non-established democracies since the late 1980s.[1]

Stockemer sheds light on the subject of voter turnout by analyzing the electoral results of all countries that held legislative elections between 1970 and 2012, and that had available data on these elections. These data come from sources such the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Adam Carr’s election archive, the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), and each country’s parliamentary site. Stockemer’s data set is comprised of more than 1,000 observations from more than 160 countries.

The study measures the percentage of registered voters that cast ballots in national elections, in relation to other variables, such as GDP per capita, level of development, compulsory voting laws, electoral system type (majority, mixed, or proportional systems), and decisiveness of the election (whether legislative and executive elections were held simultaneously). Level of development was measured based on the World Bank classification. The World Bank defines a country as developed when its GDP per capita surpasses USD 12,196.

Some of Stockemer’s results point in very interesting directions. According to his research, a country’s level of economic development has a differential impact on voter turnout in developed and developing countries. As other studies have shown, low-income states have lower turnout rates than developed countries. As countries continue to develop, they experience higher turnout at the polls. However, this trend is reversed at certain high levels of development. Past a certain point of wealth, turnout decreases as GDP continues to increase. Stockemer suggests that this could be the result of some citizens abandoning electoral politics and looking for more direct forms of political action, like demonstrations and boycotts, on matters such as environmental protection or human rights. This would accompany a change in values, which puts emphasis on post-materialist ideals, such as civilian protest activities and tolerance of the liberty of others, as noted by Inglehart and Welzel.

Likewise, Stockemer finds that compulsory voting laws and decisive elections have a distinct impact on voter turnout in developed and developing countries, having a significantly higher impact on the first than on the latter. These results would explain why researchers in one particular context or time have produced different results on the importance of institutional, socio-economic, and contextual factors in overall turnout rate.

Stockemer also explains that proportional representation, unicameralism, and small population size can increase turnout rates. Interestingly, turnout rates seem to be quite similar in democratic regimes as in autocracies. However, this can most likely be explained by manipulated data in dictatorial regimes. For example, the study points to modern autocracies, like Cuba and Laos, which officially report voter turnouts of over 95 percent.

This study certainly amounts to other recent data-driven studies that will be invaluable for disentangling the various factors that influence voter behavior across different countries. For the moment, it appears to have pointed towards an economic-regions based analysis, instead of researching for baseline models electoral turnout.

Article Source: Stockemer, Daniel“Turnout in developed and developing countries: Are the two turnout functions different or the same?” Political Science, 67(1), 2015, 3-20 

Feature Photo: cc/ (Kevin Baird)

[1] Rafael López Pintor, Maria Gratschew and Kate Sullivan, ‘Voter Turnout Rates from a Comparative Perspective’, Voter Turnout Since 1945: A Global Report, (International IDEA, 2002), p. 85.

Roberto Velasco-Alvarez
Roberto ('17) is a senior editor for Law & Politics. He is interested in economic analysis of law, political strategy & urban affairs.

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