Political equality and turnout
André Blais, Ruth Dassonneville and Filip Kostelka
Low turnout is usually considered to be a ‘problem’. Most democratic theorists argue
that a substantial level of citizen involvement is a requisite of a thriving democracy
(Pateman 1970; Cohen 1971; Pennock 1979). This is why Powell (1982) chose to focus on
voting participation as the very first standard by which to assess democratic
Low turnout is also considered problematic because it is assumed to entail unequal
participation (and high turnout equal participation). While it is well known that some
groups turn out less than others (Verba, Nie and Kim 1978), the connection between low
turnout and inequality was developed theoretically by Tingsten (1937). He formulated
the “law of dispersion”, according to which lower overall turnout implies stronger
variations in turnout across groups. Equal participation is used as an indicator of the
quality of democracy (Armingeon and Schädel 2015: 3). It is posited that all citizens
should have an equal voice, regardless of whether they are of high social class or
member of the working class, rich or poor, and irrespective of whether they have a PhD
or have not finished primary school. The assumption that low turnout results in
unequal turnout is examined at some length in section 2.1 below.
In this chapter, we review the literature that has empirically studied the consequences
of low turnout for political inequality. We wish to determine which groups are less
(more) likely to vote (section 1), whether these groups also tend be less (better)
represented in Parliament (section 2), and whether their interests and values are less
(better) defended in the actual policies that are adopted and implemented by
governments (section 3).
1. Who abstains?
Before studying the consequences of low turnout for political inequality, it is important
that we answer the question: Who is less likely to vote? Our focus is on different socio-
demographic groups that are more prone to abstain and that are therefore – possibly –
disadvantaged in terms of descriptive and substantive representation.
The most systematic analysis of who does and does not vote is Wolfinger and
Rosenstone’s (1980) seminal book Who Votes? Using census data from the United States,
they find that age and education are the two strongest correlates of turnout (page 102);
the young and the less educated are less likely to vote. Updating this work more than
three decades later, Leighley and Nagler (2014) report essentially the same age-related
patterns. Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) interpreted youth’s lower participation as a
life cycle effect. A life cycle effect would mean that the same individual will be very
likely to abstain when she is young but become more prone to vote as she becomes
older. Proponents of the life-cycle theory argue that the likelihood of voting increases
with age because experiencing a number of life-cycle effects, such as marriage, and
home ownership, increase citizens’ utility to vote (Smets 2016). Others have interpreted
the correlation between age and turnout as a consequence of the fact that turning out to
vote is self-reinforcing (for a review, see Dinas 2012). While the correlation between age
and turnout is fairly uncontested, some have argued that observed age effects also
reflect generational differences in turnout (Blais et al. 2004; Wass 2007, 2008). Such
insights come from studies that analyze long time series of data or panel studies,
because cross-sectional data – such as those used by Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) –
do not allow distinguishing between age and generational effects. The reason is that at a
fixed point in time, age and period effects are perfectly collinear (Dassonneville 2017).
As for education, Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) argue that education increases
cognitive skills, making it easier to make sense of politics. Education is also thought to
enhance gratification, and it is assumed that education makes it easier to overcome
procedural hurdles to register (pages 35-36). The correlation between education and
turnout is without dispute, but it is not absolutely clear that education as such ‘causes’
electoral participation (Persson 2014). This causal mechanism, however, is not a crucial
issue for our purposes since the bottom line remains, at the descriptive level, that the
less educated are less likely to vote. Perhaps Wolfinger and Rosenstone’s (1980) most
striking conclusion is that education matters much more than income. In their update of
Who Votes?, Leighley and Nagler (2014) pay more attention to income inequality, but in
line with Wolfinger and Rosenstone, they recognize that education matters more than
income (page 66).
In addition to education and income, Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) look at
occupational groups and they point out that turnout is quite high among two particular
groups: farmers and public-sector employees. Subsequent research has not given much
attention to turnout differences between occupational groups1, and so an interesting
question is whether these two groups benefit from their higher participation rate.
The work of Wolfinger and Rosentstone (1980) and that of Leighley and Nagler (2014)
are confined to the American case, which is clearly not a typical case with respect to
turnout. A large body of comparative research on the individual-level determinants of
turnout allows validating the findings of the US-based literature in other contexts.
Using data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) project in 23
countries (and 33 elections), Nevitte et al. (2009) examine the relationship between
socio-economic status and non-voting. They conclude that five SES variables have
But see Blais, Blake and Dion (1991).
consistent effects across countries: age, education, income, marital status, and religious
attendance. The first three variables are the same that were reported by Wolfinger and
Rosenstone (1980) and Leighley and Nagler (2014). The impact of marital status had
also been noted in the American case, and this raises the intriguing issue whether this
leads governments to pay special attention to family issues. The same concern would
apply to religion: Does higher turnout of more religious citizens have political
Let us finally consider Smets and van Ham’s (2013) meta-analysis of individual-level
determinants of turnout. Among the many socio-demographic correlates of turnout, the
only ones to be systematically supported in the empirical literature2 are education, age,
generation, and organizational membership.
Previous research has thus established unequivocally that the two groups that turn out
the least are younger and less educated citizens. The impact of income appears to be
more ambiguous. Income matters less than education but at the bivariate level there is
clearly a relationship. There is also some evidence that the relationship is not linear and
is better described by a step function where the main contrast is between the least
affluent and all other citizens. It thus makes sense to not only focus on the young and
the less educated, but to add the poor among the groups that systematically turn out at
a lower rate.3
But we should also keep in mind that some groups exhibit exceptionally high levels of
turnout, most especially farmers and public-sector employees, and it is important to
We use a success rate of at least two-thirds in terms of both tests and studies as a criterion of ‘systematic
It should be pointed out, however, that this positive correlation between income and turnout appears
to be context-dependent. Kasara and Suryanarayan (2015) have argued that the rich are more likely to
turn out to vote in states that have strong taxation capacities. In some developing democracies, such as
India, the turnout rate of the rich is similar or even lower than that of the poor.
determine whether this has consequences in terms of both descriptive and substantive
Finally, it should be pointed out that even though socio-demographic factors such as
age, education, and income are systematically correlated with the likelihood of voting,
all of these groups can be successfully mobilized to turn out. Traditionally, partisanship
(Converse 1976), but also membership of unions or associations, were found to be
effective mobilizers (Verba and Nie 1972). In fact, actively mobilizing turnout seemed a
particularly effective way to increase the participation of the less resourceful (Verba,
Nie, and Kim 1978). Over-time changes, such as the decline in partisanship,
secularisation, and weaker trade unions imply that mobilization efforts have decreased
in most advanced democracies (Gray and Caul 2000). As a result, socio-demographic
factors arguably matter even more for differences in participation. But do such
differences in turnout also lead to different representation? That is the question to
which we turn in the next section.
2. Turnout and representation in Parliament
2.1. Does low turnout lead to inequality?
Equality in participation is thought of as an indicator of the quality of democracy.
However, this equality is seemingly in danger – as it is feared that the decline in
electoral turnout that can be observed in most advanced democracies (Blais and
Rubenson 2013) leads to growing disparities between who turns out to vote and who
does not. The previous section has clarified that age is one of the strongest predictors of
turnout. Scholars that have investigated inequalities in turnout, however, have focused
mostly on stable individual-level characteristics, such as education and income. The
focus of this section will therefore be mostly on these covariates of turnout.
The basic intuition behind Tingsten’s (1937) ‘law of dispersion’, that inequalities will be
very small when turnout is high, and completely absent under full turnout, is
undisputed. What is more disputed is whether disparities are necessarily large when
turnout is low? According to Lijphart (1997: 2), low participation ‘means unequal and
socio-economically biased participation’. But is low turnout, and a decline in turnout,
almost mechanically, related to growing inequalities in electoral participation? If the
trend towards abstention is concentrated among, e.g., the poor, the implication is that
participation will indeed be more unequal. However, if all groups of citizens are equally
affected by a decline in turnout, socio-economic biases in turnout will be roughly stable
regardless of the overall level of turnout. To illustrate these possibilities, we present in
Figure 1 two stylized examples of the probability that different groups of citizens turn
out to vote in low and high turnout elections.
For the purpose of illustration, we focus on differences between rich citizens (red lines
in Figure 1) and poor citizens (blue lines). We start by looking at the scenario in the left
panel of Figure 1. First, we see that the poor have a lower probability to vote
(Pr(turnout)) than the rich, which is consistent with what we know about the
determinants of turnout. Second, in this example, the gap in turnout between the poor
and the rich is the same regardless of whether it is a low or a high turnout election. The
different turnout rate could, for example, be a result of a difference in competitiveness
of the elections. And in the scenario to the left, this difference in competitiveness affects
the probability that a rich citizen turns out to vote in the same way as it affects the
probability that a poor citizen votes.
That changes in the second scenario (the right-hand panel in Figure 1). Here as well we
see, first, that the rich (red) have a higher probability of voting than the poor (blue). The
difference between the turnout rate of the rich and the poor, however, is much larger in
a low turnout election than it is under a high turnout election. Assuming once more that
differences in competitiveness cause the different turnout rates, in the scenario to the
right, this different level of competitiveness affects the poor more than it affects the rich.
While the rich are somewhat less likely to vote in a low competitive election, the poor
are much less likely to vote when competitiveness is low. As a result, in this second
scenario, the turnout gap between the rich and the poor is larger under low turnout
than it is under high turnout.
Figure 1. Stylized examples of the impact of the decline in turnout
Figure 1 presents two stylized examples of the relationship between turnout rates and
inequalities in turnout. We now review empirical research on this topic to evaluate
which of these two scenarios – the left panel or the right panel – is closer to reality.
The available empirical evidence does not unequivocally support the idea that
inequalities in turnout, in terms of social class, income, or education, are more
important when turnout is low. Studying class and education inequalities in turnout in
the United States and in Europe, Sinnott and Achen (2008) find that the working class
and the lower educated are less likely to turn out to vote. However, they do not find
evidence that these groups are more disadvantaged in low turnout elections in the
United States. Their analyses of European data are somewhat more supportive of the
idea that lower turnout increases inequalities, though in Europe as well differences
appear to be modest. Kostelka’s (2014) analyses cast further doubt on Lijphart’s concern
that inequalities are more pronounced when turnout is low. Focusing on low turnout
elections in Central and East European post-communist countries and comparing the
socio-demographic characteristics of voters with those of the full adult population, he
finds that the lowest educated and low-income groups are underrepresented. However,
he qualifies the size of the socio-demographic bias in turnout as ‘not impressive’
(Kostelka 2014: 955). This bias, furthermore, is not larger in the low turnout elections in
post-communist countries than it is in established democracies in Western Europe,
where turnout is substantially higher. The findings of Sinnott and Achen (2008) and
those of Kostelka (2014), therefore, are fairly consistent with the left-hand scenario in
Figure 1. While there are systematic socio-demographic biases in turnout, disparities do
not seem to be (much) more pronounced when turnout is low.
Other works offer evidence that is more in line with the right-hand panel in Figure 1.
Studying the consequences of the decline in turnout in ten established democracies that
have long time series of national election study data, Dalton (2017) finds that the effect
of education on turnout has increased in all but one country.4 Similarly, Armingeon and
Schädel (2015), who study the determinants of turnout in eight Western European
countries between 1956 and 2009, find that turnout has not only declined, but also
become more unequal. Focusing on the effect of educational attainment on electoral
participation, they conclude that ‘the lower social strata tend to withdraw more from
politics’ (Armingeon and Schädel 2015: 11). This observation of a widening gap in
turnout rates does not seem to be limited to Western democracies, as Northmore-Ball
(2016) shows that the effect of education on participation has increased over time in
The countries included in Dalton’s analysis are Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the
Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. The effect of education on
turnout increases over time in all countries except for the United Kingdom.
Eastern Europe as well. Further evidence comes from Dassonneville and Hooghe (2017).
Studying the impact of educational attainment on turnout in Western Europe, they find
that the education gap increases over time, implying that participation is becoming
more unequal. In addition, analyzing the impact of the abolition of compulsory voting
in the Netherlands in 1970 – a reform that was associated with a 16 percentage points
decline in turnout – they show that educational attainment becomes a significant
predictor of turnout after the reform. These results are consistent with the right-hand
side scenario in Figure 1.
Other works have directly compared the determinants of participation in low and high
turnout elections. Persson et al. (2013) study the determinants of turnout in the 2010
Swedish county council elections. Because of irregularities in the county of Västra
Götaland, a re-election was organized in 2011 in each of the five constituencies of this
country. The 2010 election was organized simultaneously with the national and local
elections, which resulted in a high turnout of 80.6%. Turnout for the 2011 re-election, in
contrast, was only 44.1% (Persson et al. 2013). This sharp decline in turnout appears to
have been associated with larger disparities in turnout. Studying the effect of income in
both elections, Persson et al. (2013: 180) report that the ‘difference in voter turnout
between the poorest and richest was about 15 percentage points in 2010 and about 20
percentage points in 2011’. The difference between the two elections is even more
pronounced when looking at education. The turnout gap between voters with seven
years of schooling and voters with 16 years of schooling, increased from 19 percentage
points in 2010 to 32 percentage points in 2011. Bhatti et al. (2019) come to a similar
conclusion. They study the determinants of turnout in local, national, and European
elections in Denmark. Bhatti et al. use a massive panel dataset with information about
2.1 million citizens and validated turnout rates for the 2013 local elections (turnout rate
71.9%), the 2014 European elections (56.3%) and the 2015 national elections (85.9%).
They find stark differences in the impact of education between the three elections, and
these differences are consistent with the expectation that disparities are stronger when
turnout is lower. More specifically, they find that turnout gap between the lowest and
the highest educated5 is 16 percentage points in the high turnout national elections, 22
percent in the local elections, and 33 percent in the low turnout European elections.
Clearly, the analyses from Persson et al. (2013) and those of Bhatti et al. (2019) suggest
that when turnout is lower, inequalities are larger, just as Lijphart argued.
The most comprehensive analysis of inequalities in turnout, is probably Gallego’s (2015)
work on the topic. Comparing the effect of educational attainment on participation in
different countries for which the CSES project provides data, she finds that ‘gaps in the
participation rates of highly and less educated people are very small or non-existent in
countries in which turnout rates are near the 100 percent participation ceiling’ (Gallego,
2015: 53). In countries where turnout is very low (55 percent or less), in contrast,
educational attainment has a strong impact on electoral participation. However, for
elections that fall in-between these extremes, Gallego (2015) finds that there is almost no
connection between the level of turnout and the size of bias in educational attainment.
The overall correlation between biased participation and turnout levels, is thus mostly
driven by extreme cases. According to Gallego (2015), the absence of a clear relation
between turnout levels and turnout inequality – when disregarding very low and very
high turnout elections – is a result of the heterogeneous effect of contextual factors that
influence turnout. As an example, Gallego (2015) shows that increasing the cognitive
cost of voting by changing the ballot structure decreases turnout more among the lower
educated than the higher educated.
In summary, there seems to be some ground for the fear that low turnout, and a decline
in turnout, rates will increase inequalities in participation. Scholars who have compared
the determinants of turnout in low and high turnout elections find that biases are
They compare citizens who have only completed elementary school with those who completed more
than five years of higher education.
systematically larger in the former. Inequalities in educational attainment in particular
appear to be larger in low turnout elections. The second scenario in Figure 1 thus seems
to hold some truth. However, previous research also adds nuance to this basic
observation; most variation in turnout across educational groups is small, and such
variation will have little impact on the bias in electoral participation.
2.2. Are electoral outcomes different when turnout is low?
When turnout is low, it is the poor and the lower educated in particular who
disproportionally drop out of voting. Such differential turnout rates, however, are not
by definition detrimental for the representation of low income and lower education
groups. Their representation will only suffer from low turnout rates if the party
preferences and voting behavior of members of the lower social strata – who tend to
abstain – differ from the preferences of those who do turn out to vote.
Scholars who have studied this question have mostly – but not exclusively – focused on
analyzing whether the Democratic party in the US, and left-wing parties in a European
context, suffer from low turnout rates (Brunell and DiNardo 2004; Martinez and Gill
2005; Pacek and Radcliff 1995; Lutz 2007). The assumption of this stream of research is
that left-of-center parties will better represent the interests of the working class, the
poor, and the lower educated. If such parties indeed fare less well when turnout is low,
the implication is that unequal participation also entails unequal representation in
A number of studies find evidence that is in line with this basic assumption. Analyses
that simulate the election outcome under full turnout in the United States, for example,
indicate that Democrats would do better under high turnout. This effect, however,
seems quite variable (Brunell and DiNardo 2004; Martinez and Gill 2005), is generally
small (Highton and Wolfinger 2001) and it rarely changes the outcome of an election
(Citrin et al. 2003). Others have shown that left-of-center parties would benefit, or have
benefited, from high turnout in countries in Europe (Kohler 2011; Pacek and Radcliff
1995). Furthermore, a simulation based on survey data in Australia – where voting is
compulsory – suggest that the decline in turnout that would follow from abolishing
compulsory voting would lead the left-wing party Labour to lose votes (Mackerras and
McAllister 1999). Focusing on Australia as well but exploiting variation in the
introduction of compulsory voting between states, Fowler (2013) also finds that Labour
benefits from higher turnout under compulsory voting.
Others confirm that changes in turnout rates can alter the outcome of elections, but they
disagree on who benefits from high turnout. Lutz (2007), for example, finds that right-
of-center parties benefit from high turnout in Switzerland, while McAllister and
Mughan (1986) find that not Labour but the British Liberals fare better under high
turnout. Bernhagen and Marsh (2007), for their part, find that high turnout does not
systematically advantage parties of a particular ideological leanings, but small parties
and non-incumbents do benefit from high turnout. This is also consistent with
DeNardo’s (1980) theoretical expectation that the out-party benefits from high turnout.
Adding further uncertainty to the direction of the partisan effects of low turnout, a large
number of publications report mixed, or null results. Van der Eijk and van Egmond
(2007), who study turnout effects in European Parliament elections, find that partisan
differences are extremely small, and ‘virtually unrelated to substantively interesting
characteristics of parties or contexts’ (Van der Eijk and van Egmond 2007: 571).
Analyzing the impact of full turnout in the 2000 Canadian federal election, Rubenson et
al. (2007) also find very little evidence of an impact on parties’ electoral success. Works
that have studied the effects of exogenous shocks in turnout as well have sometimes
produced mixed results. Miller and Dassonneville (2016), who study the partisan effects
of the abolition of compulsory voting in the Netherlands, show that the Social
democratic party benefited from the decline in turnout, while small left-wing parties
suffered. Ferwerda (2013), who leverages over-time variation in the abolition of
compulsory voting in Austria, also finds that the Social democratic party did somewhat
better after the repeal of compulsory voting, while minor parties slightly lost. His
reading of the evidence, however, is that differences are substantively extremely small.
Even though the poor and the lower educated are less likely to turn out to vote – in
particular in low turnout elections, it seems as if left-of-center parties are not doing
worse when turnout is low. Why is the effect so small? Scholars have pointed to two
explanations, that can be complementary. First, it has been argued that the absence of a
clear partisan effect of low turnout is a consequence of the fact that the preferences and
opinions of abstainers are not that different from those of voters. There is no clear
indication, therefore, that abstainers prefer the more progressive policies that left-of-
center parties stand for (Highton and Wolfinger 2001; Rubenson et al. 2007; van der Eijk
and van Egmond 2007). Second, contextual factors – and electoral rules in particular –
have an impact on the size of partisan effects. According to Ferwerda (2014), in order
for a decline in turnout to translate into ‘a meaningful loss in party vote share, there
must simultaneously be a large decline in turnout between elections as well as a large
skew in preferences between the voting and non-voting population’. Ferwerda (2014)
argues that the combination of both is very rare. A first reason is that declines in
turnout are generally fairly modest. Secondly, a large skew in party preferences is
unlikely when there are multiple parties, which holds especially in fragmented party
systems. As a result, a decline in turnout levels only rarely alters the outcome of an
3. Turnout and substantive representation
Although voter turnout does not systematically affect election outcomes, there is solid
evidence that it does exert a sensible effect on public policy. A large body of research
shows that the level of electoral participation matters for redistribution and welfare and
for the quality of the democratic process.
3.1 Turnout and redistribution
If voter turnout usually does not influence who wins an election, can it alter public
policy? In terms of redistributive policies, the underlying theory draws on an extension
of the Downsian spatial model (Downs 1957) by Meltzer and Richard (1981). In a
unidimensional space and under a majoritarian rule, the preference of the median voter
is decisive for building a winning majority. Simultaneously, in the population, income
is typically positively skewed (mean > median). The median voter’s preference for
redistribution is thus likely to be proportional to the distance between her income and
the population mean. While the (pre-tax and pre-transfer) population mean reflects the
country’s wealth, the level of the median’s voter income, and her preferences for
redistribution, depend on voter turnout. As long as Tingsten’s law of dispersion
applies, the higher voter turnout, the lower will be the median voter’s income (i.e. low-
income citizens vote), and the stronger will be the demand for redistribution.
The reason why changes in participation rates may public policies without altering
election results (cf. section 2.2) is that political parties adapt their manifestoes to the
effective electorate and its preferences (Toka 2004: 1; Birch 2009: 128). Pontusson and
Rueda (2010) demonstrate that, in established democracies, left-wing parties’ positions
shift to the left as voter turnout (and low-income voters’ participation) increases. Of
course, such shift occur only if parties are office-seekers. Accordingly, Bechtel et al.
(2016) study voting in Swiss referenda (1908-1970) and find that compulsory voting
(and thus higher turnout) had significant partisan consequences on referenda outcomes.
The electoral compulsion boosted support for positions defended by the Swiss Social
Democratic Party by up to 20 percentage points.
The hypothesized positive association between voter turnout and redistribution has
been generally confirmed by the empirical literature. In particular, a large number of
studies find that, in the U.S. states, an income bias in turnout, which is a typical
corollary of low turnout, is associated with more stringent welfare policies, smaller
government expenditure, and larger income inequality (Hill and Leighly 1992; Hill et al.
1995; Husted and Kenny 1997; Fellowes and Rowe 2004; Avery 2015).
Work that has shown a link between turnout and redistribution, however, may be
criticized for a number of reasons. First, one could object that what matters in the
specific U.S. context, where much of the research is based, is campaign funding (see
Bartels 2008: 280, Gilens 2012: chapter 8). This factor is usually not controlled for in the
existing studies, and it may be correlated with the income bias in voter turnout. Yet,
there is overwhelming comparative evidence on the positive effect of high turnout on
the generosity of redistribution. And this evidence includes work on countries where
political parties are publicly funded (Hicks and Swank 1992; Lindert 1996, Iversen and
Cusak 2000; Franseze 2002: 103; Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005; Chong and Olivera
2008; Mahler 2008 and 2010; Fumagalli and Narciso 2012).
Second, critics are concerned with the potential presence of endogeneity in work that
links turnout and redistribution, or even reverse causality as inequality may hinder
participation (Solt 2008 and 2010; but see Stockemer and Scruggs 2012). Such concerns
can be addressed by ingenuous strategies instrumenting turnout. For example,
Aggeborn (2016) leverages the 1970 reform in Sweden that changed the election
calendar to hold local and national election simultaneously. The resulting increase in
turnout in local elections provoked a sudden surge in government spending in Swedish
municipalities, in sharp contrast to the stability in spending that was observed in
neighboring Finland. Further evidence comes from Australia, where the adoption of
compulsory voting (and rise in turnout) in the 1920s seems to have increased pension
spending well above the level in other comparable OECD countries (Fowler 2013).
Third, the relationship between changes in turnout and redistributive policies is
unlikely to be linear. The effects of small changes in turnout on the electorate’s
preferences may sometimes go almost unnoticed, and thus fail to significantly alter
public policies – especially in the short term.6 Conversely, large changes in turnout or
changes affecting voters with a clearly distinct set of preferences sometimes may trigger
sweeping reforms. A case in point are historical extensions of suffrage that have
increased absolute turnout (expressed as share of the total population). Social science
research provides robust evidence on how, in various contexts and periods, the
(effective) enfranchisement of lower-class citizens (Acemoglu and Robinson 2000;
Linder 2004; Aidt and Jensen 2009), women (Aid et al. 2006; Miller 2008; Bertocchi 2011),
ethnic minorities (Naidu 2012), and non-citizens (Vernby 2013) resulted in additional
public expenditure benefiting these, legally circumscribed and previously excluded,
Overall, despite the minor caveats, it is clear that politicians care who votes and they
seem to know who participates and who does not, which, in most cases, affects welfare
and redistributive policies. This is also shown by geographic disparities in public
spending. In the United States, members of the Congress strategically allocate funds to
those areas within their electoral districts that vote at higher rates (Martin 2003).
Similarly, in Mexico, voter turnout at the municipal level accounts for sewage and
water coverage (Clearly 2007).
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3.3 Turnout and the quality of democracy
Voter turnout not only matters for who gets what in democracies. There also is evidence
that turnout influences the quality of the democratic process. Following Manin et al.
(1999) and Roberts (2010), democratic quality can be understood as the strength and
nature of linkages between elected public officials and the electorate.
In the United States, Martin and Claibourn (2013) argue that legislators use turnout as a
cue for the degree of public scrutiny. The higher the level of electoral participation, the
more legislators care about citizens’ preferences. Martin and Claibourn validate this
hypothesis by means of an analysis of nearly four decades of legislative politics in the
U.S. House of Representatives. They show that legislative districts with higher voting
rates exhibit greater policy responsiveness. Similar findings are obtained by a series of
distinct analyses that focus at the level of local communities. Verba and Nie (1972),
Hansen (1975), and Hill and Matsubayashi (2005) all demonstrate that voter turnout is
associated with mass-elite agenda agreement. These results suggest that, in local politics
too, the higher turnout, the better information politicians have about citizens’
preferences and the more pressure they feel to follow these preferences.
Other research shows that, particularly in developing democracies, high turnout may
favor universalistic and programmatic party competition as opposed to clientelism and
patronage. Nooruddin and Simmon (2015) show, through their empirical analyses of
spending patterns in Indian states, a negative effect of participation on private spending
and a positive effect on public spending. Similarly, Nathan (2019) studies political
behavior in Ghana and argues that the low turnout of urban elites helps perpetuate the
vicious circle of the country’s particularistic and patronage-based electoral politics.
We have shown that the youth, the lower educated and the poor are less likely to vote.
Furthermore, considerable research finds that these groups disproportionally drop out
of voting in low turnout elections, though this is mostly limited to established
democracies. A substantial number of studies have looked at the political repercussions
of this lower turnout. The usual assumption is that a lower turnout means greater
inequality, that is, fewer votes for leftist parties and policies that disadvantage these
Focusing on partisan effects of low turnout first, the empirical evidence that we have
summarized in this chapter does not consistently support the assumption that low
turnout disadvantages the left. Regarding the policy consequences of low turnout, the
empirical findings are not entirely consistent, but the bulk of the evidence does suggest
that high (low) turnout contributes to more (less) redistribution. There is also some
support for the hypothesis that a higher turnout may foster greater policy
We note, however, that little attention has been paid to the political consequences of
low youth turnout. We do not know, for instance, if politicians are less prone to invest
in education if and when they know that younger citizens are prone to abstain. We also
know little about the consequences of high turnout among specific occupational groups.
Are politicians paying more attention to the demands of farmers and public-sector
employees, because these groups are much more inclined to vote?7 Future research
should address these issues while disentangling the effect of voter turnout from those of
other types of political participation (e.g. protesting, campaign contributions) and the
influence of organized interests.
% See Blais et al. (1997) for an examination of the link between public sector employees and leftist parties.
Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson (2000). ‘Why Did the West Extend the
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