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The Generational and Institutional Sources of the Global Decline in Voter Turnout

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Abstract

Why has voter turnout declined in democracies all over the world? This article draws on findings from microlevel studies and theorizes two explanations: generational change and a rise in the number of elective institutions. The empirical section tests these hypotheses along with other explanations proposed in the literature—shifts in party/candidate competition, voting-age reform, weakening group mobilization, income inequality, and economic globalization. The authors conduct two analyses. The first analysis employs an original data set covering all post-1945 democratic national elections. The second studies individual-level data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems and British, Canadian, and US national election studies. The results strongly support the generational change and elective institutions hypotheses, which account for most of the decline in voter turnout. These findings have important implications for a better understanding of the current transformations of representative democracy and the challenges it faces.
The Generational and Institutional Sources of the Global
Decline in Voter Turnout
Filip Kostelka*& Andr´
e Blais
Abstract
Why has voter turnout been declining in democracies all over the world? This article draws on
findings from micro-level studies and theorizes two explanations: generational change and a
rise in the number of elective institutions. The empirical section tests these hypotheses along
with other explanations proposed in the literature (shifts in party/candidate competition, voting
age reforms, weakening group mobilization, income inequality, and economic globalization).
We conduct two analyses. The first analysis employs an original data set covering all post-1945
democratic national elections. The second studies individual-level data from the Comparative
Study of Electoral Systems and American, British, and Canadian national election studies. The
results strongly support the generational change and elective institutions hypotheses, which
account for most of the decline. These findings have important implications for a better un-
derstanding of the current transformations of representative democracy and the challenges it
faces.
This paper can be cited as follows: Kostelka, Filip, and Andr´
e Blais. forthcoming. “The Gen-
erational and Institutional Sources of the Global Decline in Voter Turnout”. World Politics.
Acknowledgment: We would like to thank Damien Bol, Ruth Dassonneville, Jean-Franc¸ois
Daoust, Anja Durovic, Robert Johns, Ian McAllister, Shane P. Singh, Dietlind Stolle, Vincent
Tiberj, and World Politics editors and reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts
of this paper.
*Department of Government, University of Essex, email: filip.kostelka@essex.ac.uk
Department of Political Science, University of Montreal; email: andre.blais@umontreal.ca
‘Politicians Dogged by Voter Discontent.’ ‘Apathy Growing in Many Voters.’ ‘Voter Turnout a
Vexing Problem.’ ‘Record Low Voter Turnout Expected in National Election.’ ‘Concerns over Low
Voter Turnout.’ ‘Low Voter Turnout Puzzles Analysts.’ ‘Voter Turnout Lowest in 20 Years Due to
Political Apathy.’ These post-2000 headlines from leading media all over the world1illustrate how
declining voter turnout has become a global phenomenon in contemporary democracies. While in
the late 1960s, typically over 77% citizens voted in national legislative and presidential, elections,
the global average voting rate fell to 67% after 2010.2Figure 1below shows the gradual nature of
this decline.3Though democracy expanded across countries,4electoral participation faded within
them. This is both problematic and puzzling.
The global decline is problematic since when voter turnout is low, economically and socially
disadvantaged groups tend to abstain more, which questions the principle of democratic equal-
ity.5Moreover, there is evidence that low voter turnout introduces a bias in public policy, reduces
government responsiveness, and favors clientelism and patronage over programmatic party com-
petition.6
For a number of reasons, the global decline in voter turnout is puzzling. First, it occurred de-
spite the presence of factors that could have increased and not decreased participation such as a
general rise in education.7Second, the most intuitive explanation, heavily present in journalistic
accounts, that attributes the decline to citizen discontent is not supported by available micro-level
and macro-level evidence (see page 4 below for an overview). Third, the decline is not the result
of the five-fold expansion of the pool of electoral democracies by low-turnout countries. In those
countries that have held elections continuously since the 1940s, voting rates fell by as much (see
Figure 1).8
Political scientists have offered a large number of alternative accounts. The most prominent hy-
potheses, which we discuss in depth in the next section, pertain to a decline in group mobilization,
transformation of party competition, voting age reforms, income inequality, economic globaliza-
tion, and generational change. However, the current state of the literature does not clearly solve
the puzzle of voter decline as existing studies usually theorize and test the different hypotheses in
isolation and on a limited number of elections. Moreover, they rarely quantify the relative weight
of the various contributions to the decline. In this article, we draw on the valuable insights from
existing studies and propose a comprehensive investigation of the global rise in electoral absten-
1Canada, Great Britain, Germany or Sweden, Mozambique, Senegal, and South Korea.
2Unless stated otherwise, voter turnout in this manuscript corresponds to the share of registered voters who cast a
ballot.
3The data for this figure are presented in the Data and Methods section below.
4Huntington 1991.
5Lijphart 1997; Dassonneville and Hooghe 2017. There are a few exceptions to this otherwise consistent relation-
ship in new democracies, see Kasara and Suryanarayan 2015.
6Martin and Claibourn 2013; Avery 2015; Nooruddin and Simmons 2015; Aggeborn 2016. See Blais, Dasson-
neville, and Kostelka 2020 for an overview.
7Brody 1978; Teixeira 1992.
8Figure 1suggests that the global decline started already in the 1950s. However, as the trend in the group of con-
tinuous democracies demonstrates, the 1940s-1960s difference stems mostly from the emergence of new democratic
countries.
1
tion.
From the theoretical standpoint, we critically reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the com-
peting explanations. We argue in favor of two hypotheses which we further develop: generational
change and a multiplication of elective institutions. The generational explanation builds on the rich
literature on value change inspired by modernization theory.9We postulate that new generations
born in relative material affluence have different values, less conducive to participation, than gener-
ations born in economically less favorable contexts. The increasing share of these new generations
in the electorate gradually reduces the aggregated voting rates. The second hypothesis is based
on the observation that democracies have witnessed a substantial increase in the total number of
elections and referendums in which citizens may participate. Drawing on the existing evidence on
the effects of election frequency, we argue that the increase in the number of elective institutions
has depressed the global voter turnout.
Figure 1: Evolution of Voter Turnout in National Elections 1945-2017
65
70
75
80
85
Turnout (%)
1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s
All electoral democracies (116 countries)
20 continuous cases (between the 1940s and 2010s)
Note: The figure draws on the first rounds of legislative (lower-house) and presidential elections. Voter turnout is
measured as % of registered voters. For sources and further details see the Data & Methods section.
The empirical contribution of this article consists in testing our two hypotheses, as well as
alternative explanations, in large-scale analyses that combine evidence from the aggregated and
individual levels. In total, the analyzed data span 1,421 national elections and 314,071 individual
9Nevitte 1996; Inglehart 1999.
2
observations from high-quality post-electoral surveys. Moreover, besides testing the different hy-
potheses, the present study explicitly estimates the weight of their contribution to the global decline
in voter turnout.
The empirical section proceeds in three steps. First, we put all the major hypotheses to the
test in what we believe is the most comprehensive cross-national analysis of voter turnout to date.
This analysis employs an original exhaustive data set of democratic legislative and presidential
elections held across the globe between 1945 and 2017. It shows that, by contrast to other expla-
nations, the generational and elective institutions hypotheses receive empirical support across a
variety of model specifications and additional robustness checks. In the second step, we focus on
the generational hypothesis and test it directly at the individual level using survey data from the
four waves of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems as well as national election studies from
Britain, Canada, and the United States. This second analysis also fully supports the generational
explanation and provides no evidence in favor of competing alternatives. Moreover, the estimated
magnitude of generational differences in voter turnout is, interestingly, similar to that observed in
the first analysis. Finally, in the third step, we estimate the contributions of our key factors (gener-
ational replacement and rising number of elective institutions) to the global decline by calculating
counter-factual voting rates. Altogether, these findings contribute to a better understanding of the
current transformation of representative democracy and the challenges it faces.
Existing Explanations
The most intuitive explanation of why turnout has declined pertains to citizen discontent. Political
analysts often assume that the growing number of abstainers reflects citizen dissatisfaction with
politics. However, the political science literature does not support this view, neither theoretically
nor empirically. Theoretically, it is not clear why dissatisfaction should demobilize rather than mo-
bilize voters or why these effects should not cancel out.10 Empirically, there is little evidence that
satisfaction declined over the past decades.11 Moreover, Ezrow and Xezonakis found that, contrary
to conventional expectations, democratic satisfaction (and not dissatisfaction) could be detrimental
to voter turnout.12 Ultimately, research using micro-level panels reveals that the relationship be-
tween democratic satisfaction and voter turnout is reversed. Kostelka and Blais demonstrated that,
while pre-election satisfaction is unrelated to voter turnout, post-election satisfaction is generally
stronger among voters thanks to the legitimizing effect of elections and a boost of satisfaction in
the victorious camp.13
In the political science literature, one of the first influential explanations of the global decline
in voter turnout relates to group mobilization. Gray and Caul argue that falling membership rates
in trade unions and (mainly left-wing) political parties, observed in most established democracies,
10Pacek, Pop-Eleches, and Tucker 2009; Ezrow and Xezonakis 2016.
11Norris 2011; van Ham and Thomassen 2017.
12Ezrow and Xezonakis 2016.
13Kostelka and Blais 2018.
3
weakened the mobilization of peripheral voters.14 However, while lower membership in politi-
cal organizations naturally does not help voter turnout, the magnitude of this effect is likely to be
small.15 Moreover, today, it may be at least partly compensated by modern mobilization techniques
(including social media).16
Franklin suggests two main causes why voter turnout has declined: transformation of party
competition and voting age reforms.17 As regards party competition, the argument goes that voter
turnout declined because elections became less decisive as party systems gradually fragmented in
the post-1960s. This greater fragmentation leads to more coalition cabinets and a weaker corre-
spondence between the outcome of the election and the composition of the government.
The second cause of the decline in voter turnout is the lowering of the voting age below
21 years, which occurred in most established democracies around the mid-1970s. According to
Franklin, lowering the voting age increases abstention in the first elections citizens face, which has
implications for their long-term propensity to vote. When compared to first-time voters aged 21
and over, those 18 to 20 years old are less likely to socialize in the habit of voting. The progres-
sive replacement of cohorts who made their first decision after 21 years of age by those socialized
earlier results in an overall decline in turnout. A weak point of this explanation is that it does not
take into account the variety of situations in which young adults live, which reflects, among others,
the job market and welfare state arrangements. In a number of countries where turnout declined
strongly, especially in Southern Europe, many of those 18 to 20 years old live with their parents
which should protect them from the negative effect of the voting age reform. In contrast, in North-
ern Europe where voter turnout declined the least, youngsters often leave their families early on
thanks to generous welfare schemes and a healthy situation on the job market.18
Solt used survey data to demonstrate that income inequality may depress electoral participa-
tion and, in particular, the engagement of the lowest income categories.19 As inequality has risen
in recent decades,20 this factor may have contributed to the global voter decline. Yet, two caveats
are in order. Theoretically, inequality may be mobilizing when it is seized by political parties.21
Empirically, most studies using aggregated voter turnout have not found support for the negative
effect of income inequality.22 It thus seems that the role of income inequality in participation is
“more complex than has often been articulated”23.
Finally, several studies suggest that a major source of decline is economic globalization.24 Ac-
14Gray and Caul 2000. See also Radcliff and Davis 2000, Leighley and Nagler 2007, and Heath 2007.
15Franklin 2004, 18.
16See Bond et al. 2012; Teresi and Michelson 2015.
17Franklin 2004.
18For a comparison of young adults’ mobility, see Eurostat 2018.
19Solt 2008,2010.
20Piketty 2014.
21Polacko et al. 2021.
22Arzheimer 2008; Fumagalli and Narciso 2012; Stockemer and Scruggs 2012; Stockemer and Parent 2014; Po-
lacko et al. 2021.
23Polacko et al. 2021, 5; see also Stockemer 2017, 9.
24Steiner 2010; Steiner and Martin 2012; Marshall and Fisher 2015; Karp and Milazzo 2016.
4
cording to this account, increased economic integration and capital mobility constrain government
policy, which makes national elections less relevant. The strength of this account is that it can,
in theory, explain the global nature of the decline. However, economic globalization is accompa-
nied with a rise in the prominence of cultural issues. And parties that oppose the principles of
economic and cultural openness are able to gather considerable support and influence policy out-
comes,25 raising turnout in some social groups26 and countries27. Therefore, whether and by how
much economic globalization depresses voter turnout remains an open question. At the empirical
level, several studies28 found support for the negative effect of globalization, and party competition
depolarization on turnout. By contrast, Aaskoven conducted three different types of analysis and
found little evidence of fiscal constraints’ negative effect on voter turnout.29
In sum, there are several promising explanations but none of them is free of caveats. Some
of these explanations (in particular the economic globalization hypothesis) are “macro - macro”
accounts and do not provide supporting evidence from individual-level research. By contrast, the
hypotheses presented in the next section build heavily on findings at the individual level.
Theory and Hypotheses
This section presents and further develops two explanations. The first suggests that the decline
is due to generational replacement. While it capitalizes on valuable insights from earlier works,
it fundamentally departs from the existing literature in that it attributes the causal mechanism of
generational change to economic affluence. This has important implications for the empirical tests
of the generational account as well as for our understanding of the ultimate causal factors that
depress voting rates. The second explanation is institutional and points out a rising number of
elective institutions across the democratic world. Although it is clear from the existing research
that this institutional trend may be detrimental to participation rates, this factor has been curiously
overlooked in the explanation of the global voter turnout dynamics.
Emergence of Affluent Generations
Researchers have observed for long that, in established democracies, voter turnout tends to be
quite stable, oscillating only by a few percentage points from one election to another.30 This sta-
bility seems to stem from the fact that, once individuals get politically and electorally socialized,
which typically occurs by the time they reach their late 20s, their propensity to vote tends to remain
relatively stable through the rest of their lifetime.31 While some works interpret this stability as a
25Kriesi et al. 2006; Abou-Chadi and Krause 2018; Im et al. 2019.
26Immerzeel and Pickup 2015.
27Leininger and Meijers, n.d.
28Steiner 2010; Steiner and Martin 2012; Marshall and Fisher 2015.
29Aaskoven 2021.
30Blais 2007.
31Miller and Shanks 1996; Plutzer 2002.
5
sign of a habit,32 others argue that the stability in voting rather reflects stability in those attitudes
that drive the decision to vote such as political interest.33 In any case, the relative stability in the
individual propensity to vote suggests that major trends in voter turnout occur primarily through
generational replacement as new cohorts replace older ones.
Accordingly, a large number of studies of individual-level voter turnout have discovered gen-
erational differences between electorally more active older cohorts and less active younger co-
horts.34 Among these studies, Blais and Rubenson present evidence from the most diverse set of
countries.35 Studying longitudinal survey data from eight established democracies, they show that
individuals born after 1960 vote at significantly lower rates than earlier generations when age and
period effects are accounted for. They also demonstrate that the generation difference disappears
once two key political attitudes are controlled for: civic duty and external efficacy. In other words,
the post-1960 cohort vote less than their predecessors because they have a weaker sense of duty
and lower efficacy.
These results support the view that generational differences in attitudes may be one of the
causes, if not the main cause, of the gradual decline in voting rates around the world. However, the
main limitation of such an explanation is that the deep causes of the generational difference in po-
litical attitudes remain so far unknown. Most of the aforementioned studies, which typically focus
on individual countries, interpret the differences between generations in terms of country-specific
historical events and periods. This means that the generational differences are seen as products
of the changing socio-political climate in the countries under study. However, a slightly different,
though largely compatible, interpretation is arguably more compelling.
Given that similar effects are observed across democracies located in different sub-regions
of the developed world with contrasting political trajectories,36 the generational differences are
unlikely to primarily reflect these countries’ (or their sub-regions’) political or historical singu-
larities.37 Instead, they should stem from what these countries have in common, which is clearly
economic development and its corollaries such as education, access to information, and the weak-
ening of traditional social hierarchies. This alternative interpretation is fully compatible with a
broad stream of literature38 that draws on Ronald Inglehart’s pioneering work39 and shows that
economic affluence produces significant cultural change. This is because affluence radically trans-
forms social lifestyles and changes the socialization environment in which individuals develop
32Campbell et al. 1960, 92; Franklin 2004; Dinas 2012; Smets and Neundorf 2014; Coppock and Green 2016;
Rapeli, Mattila, and Papageorgiou 2020.
33Prior 2010, 765.
34Miller and Shanks 1996; Lyons and Alexander 2000; Putnam 2000; Wattenberg 2003; Clarke et al. 2004; Ruben-
son et al. 2004; Wass 2007; Wattenberg 2011; Tiberj 2018; for more nuanced or contrasting findings see Gallego 2009;
Konzelmann, Wagner, and Rattinger 2012; Linek and Petr´
uˇ
sek 2016.
35Blais and Rubenson 2013.
36For instance, Blais and Rubenson (2013) study Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands,
Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United States.
37Nevertheless, these singularities may, of course, contribute to potential country-specific divergences from the
common trend.
38Dalton 2008; Norris 2011; Welzel and Inglehart 2011; Klingemann 2014.
39Inglehart 1977.
6
their values and attitudes. Historical research has meticulously documented how the emergence of
an “age of affluence” in the late 1950s and early 1960s transformed western societies. It created a
world in which youth no longer had to help the family with subsistence and, instead, developed an
autonomous culture with distinct values and norms.40
An important aspect of this cultural transformation is a generational decline in deference to
authority and social norms.41 Since the social norm of participation (i.e., the feeling that voting is
a civic duty) is one of the key reasons why citizens vote,42 the observed cultural change is likely
to have depressed new generations’ propensity to vote. This would explain the aforementioned
generational differences in voter turnout rates observed across a variety of countries. This theory
is corroborated by more general studies on political participation, which observe that, in contrast
to their older counterparts, new generations consider citizenship more as a right than a duty and
increasingly prefer direct forms of participation (such as protests or boycotts) to voting.43
Affluence, therefore, produces an environment in which electoral abstention is significantly less
stigmatizing. This should exert the strongest effect among the less educated citizens, who are less
interested in politics and who have a low intrinsic motivation to vote. It is indeed those citizens
whose participation has declined the most in European democracies.44 Similarly to education,45
affluence thus exerts a different effect at the micro and macro levels. Whereas micro-level afflu-
ence is associated with participation, macro-level affluence (and the resulting social change) starts
depressing overall participation levels when the country reaches an advanced level of economic
development.
If this theory is correct, similar generational differences should be observed in most electoral
democracies when they reach levels of economic development comparable to those observed in
the West around the early 1960s. In other words, this theory implies that new cohorts of voters that
were born and socialized in relative societal economic affluence, which we hence call as “affluent”
in the rest of the manuscript, progressively reduce the global turnout rate. It should be emphasized
that many members of the affluent cohorts are not at all individually well-off in terms of assets or
income. What matters is the global socialization context experienced by the different cohorts.
This theory is about lifestyles that are a product of long-term economic transformation, not
about the ebbs and flows of the economy. Since economic slowdowns in developed countries do
not make children join the workforce in their early teen years and do not eradicate youth cul-
ture and autonomy, our theory implies that they do not stop or reverse the process of generational
change. We thus do not expect that the post-1970 economic slowdown, or the 2008 economic cri-
40Judt 2006.
41Nevitte 1996; Inglehart 1999, see also Sutcliffe-Braithwaite 2018.
42Riker and Ordeshook 1968; Blais 2000; Blais and Daoust 2020.
43Dalton 2008; Coff´
e and Lippe 2010. At the same time, protesting and other elite-challenging activities presum-
ably do not compensate for the decline in voting. The existing research shows that, at the individual-level, protesting
is positively associated with voting, and that those who abstain typically do not protest (Strømsnes 2009; Nov´
y2014;
van Deth 2020).
44Armingeon and Sch¨
adel 2015; Dassonneville and Hooghe 2017.
45Persson 2015.
7
sis would have halted the generational decline in the propensity to vote in economically developed
democracies. This theory is inspired by earlier economic,46 political,47 sociological,48 and histori-
cal49 research that explicitly describes the late 1950s and early 1960s as an “age of affluence”.
Hypothesis 1 The share of cohorts that grew up in relative economic affluence is negatively asso-
ciated with voter turnout.
Institutional Change
In the past decades, citizens’ requests for greater participation in government resulted in institu-
tional reforms that have significantly increased the number of times citizens are invited to vote in
most electoral democracies. Elections have proliferated because of decentralization, regional (i.e.,
European) integration, frequent use of referendums, introduction of directly elected presidencies,
or shorter terms of office. For instance, in France, in the three years before the 1978 legislative
election, citizens could participate on average in three elections. Thirty years later, before the 2017
legislative election, this number was multiplied by three (9 votes instead of 3) and, in addition,
millions of citizens voted in open presidential primaries organized by several political parties.50
Interestingly, the 2017 legislative election recorded the lowest turnout in France’s post-1945 his-
tory. In other countries, the expansion of voting opportunities, has been less dramatic but, for
example, in the European Union member states, the number of elected institutions increased on
average by approximately 34 % between the 1960s and 2010s.51
This phenomenon has so far passed unnoticed in the literature on the global decline in voter
turnout. This is surprising since there are theoretical reasons and empirical findings that support
the negative effect of election frequency on voting rates. Moreover, a high number of elective in-
stitutions is often advanced to explain why voter turnout is exceptionally low in countries such as
the United States and Switzerland.52
The detrimental effects of election frequency on participation may be manifold.53 Some vot-
ers are likely to perceive the increasing participatory demands as unrealistic and feel that, if they
vote in one election, they have fulfilled their duty and are entitled to abstain in the following elec-
tion. Second, more elections typically means more campaigning time and greater strain on party
resources. While additional public funding may be available in some cases, the contributions and
availability of party supporters usually cannot be significantly expanded and need to be pooled
across the increasing number of elections. More generally, the effectiveness of party mobilization
46Galbraith 1958.
47Lane 1965.
48Goldthorpe et al. 1968.
49Judt 2006.
50Kostelka 2017b.
51The average number of elected institutions increased from 4.1 to 5.4. See the Methods section for more details
on the data.
52Boyd 1986, 95; Teixeira 1992, 15 & 54; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993, 187; Lijphart 1997, 8.
53Boyd 1981; Kostelka et al. 2020.
8
appeals is presumably inversely proportional to the frequency of mobilization. The more often
voters get mobilized, the less powerful is the mobilization message. Third, the creation of new
elective institutions reduces the importance of preexisting institutions. As long as preexisting and
new types of elections are held separately, voters see fewer benefits than before from participating
in the preexisting type of elections.
Empirically, most existing studies54 find a substantial and statistically significant negative effect
of election frequency on voting rates. However, these studies typically do not explicitly connect
the rise in election frequency with falling participation rates. Therefore, there is yet no empirical
evidence that this factor significantly contributes to the puzzle of the global voter decline.55 We
explicitly hypothesize that the general rise in the number of electoral institutions has depressed
voter turnout around the world.
Hypothesis 2 The rising number of elective institutions is negatively associated with voter turnout.
In what follows, we conduct two types of empirical analyses. Analysis 1 tests our two hypothe-
ses and the existing explanations on a large comparative data set of post-1945 national elections.
Analysis 2 focuses on the generational accounts and tests them against both comparative (the Com-
parative Study of Electoral Systems) and country-specific (the American, Canadian, and British
election studies) survey data. In addition, the last empirical section estimates the contributions of
our two key factors to the decline by calculating counter-factual voting rates that would be ob-
served today had those factors remained unchanged since the 1960s.
Analysis 1
Data & Methods
We built an original data set of all the first rounds of national (legislative and presidential) electoral
contests meeting democratic standards56 that were held between 1945 and 2017, which in total in-
cludes 1421 elections.57 Using this dataset, we run regression analyses with voter turnout measured
54See e.g., Boyd 1981,1986,n.d.; Teixeira 1992, 54-55; Norris 2002; Rallings, Thrasher, and Borisyuk 2003;
Ezrow and Xezonakis 2016; Garmann 2017; Kostelka et al. 2020.
55For an exception limited to European democracies, see Kostelka et al. 2020.
56The selection criterion is Polity IV 6, see Marshall 2017.
57Some elections that fulfill the selection criteria on Polity IV are not included since their data on voter turnout
are unavailable or clearly unreliable. We collected data from printed source (Nohlen, Krennerich, and Thibaut 1999;
Nohlen, Grotz, and Hartmann 2001; Nohlen 2005; Nohlen and St¨
over 2010) and from the following sources (accessed
in July and August 2018) for the most recent elections: www.electionguide.org, www.ipu.org, http://africanelections.
tripod.com, http://psephos.adam-carr.net, www.electproject.org. All included elections are listed in the Supplementary
Material (Kostelka and Blais 2021).
9
as the percentage of registered voters that cast a vote58 as the dependent variable. To operationalize
the decline in voter turnout, our analyses include decade dummy variables. This allows for a non-
linear trend. Our expectation is to reduce the magnitude of these dummies’ coefficients through the
inclusion of substantive independent variables. The Supplementary Material shows that our main
results are robust to the inclusion of linear (year) and quadratic (year squared) time trends.
The operationalization of Hypothesis 1requires a certain level of affluence from which newly
born cohorts develop values that are less conducive to electoral participation. We choose the real
GDP per capita of Great Britain in 1960 ($12,000 in 2011 U.S. dollars) for several reasons.59 First,
British households experienced a significant improvement in their standards of living in the 1950s.
These developments motivated early analyses in value and attitudinal change such as the Affluent
Worker study60 .61 More generally, around 1960, Great Britain was the most developed large coun-
try in Western Europe and it was at the forefront of Europe’s cultural transformation, which in
most other European countries started only later in the 1960s or early 1970s.62 Second, Clark and
colleagues documented the existence of the generational divide in voter turnout and civic duty be-
tween pre-1960 and post-1960 cohorts using data from the British Election Study.63 Third, Grasso
and colleagues choose practically the same cutting point (1959) and, analyzing entirely different
data (the annual British Social Attitudes Survey), found similar generational differences in politi-
cal participation.64
The choice of this benchmark implies that, in North America, which was largely spared the
damage of the Second World War and enjoyed high growth rates in the early 1940s, the value
change started significantly earlier (e.g., in 1941 in the United States) than in Europe. But this
corresponds well both to earlier operationalizations of affluence65 and the results of the available
generational studies. With regard to the latter, for example, Miller and Shanks find that “New Deal
cohorts”, who entered the U.S. electorate until 1964 (i.e., were born until the early 1940s), vote at
higher rates than “Post-New Deal cohorts”.66 In most West European countries, the generational
divide starts later in the 1960s or 1970s (see the Supplementary Material for a full list).67 To esti-
mate the age composition of the electorates, we draw on the data of the U.N. population division of
58The only exception is the United States where, following earlier studies, we use voter turnout in terms of the
voting-eligible population (McDonald and Popkin 2001; McDonald 2018). One of the key advantages of both voter-
registered and voting-eligible population turnout is that, unlike voting-age population turnout, it is unaffected by the
rising influx of refugees and immigrants observed in some established democracies.
59The country GDP levels come from Bolt et al. 2018.
60Goldthorpe et al. 1968.
61Goldthorpe et al. (1968) did not find much change in the political attitudes and behavior of the enriched working
class. From the perspective of Hypothesis 1, this is not surprising as the change should come through generational
replacement and not through a period effect.
62Judt 2006, 377.
63Clarke et al. 2004.
64Grasso et al. 2019.
65For example, when discussing different eras in the U.S. socio-economic history, Lane (1965) described the post-
1941 period as an “age of affluence”, consisting of a 1942-1950 preliminary stage and a full post-1950 stage.
66Miller and Shanks 1996.
67Kostelka and Blais 2021.
10
the United Nations,68 which covers the 1950-2015 period.69 For each election, the resulting vari-
able Affluent Generations indicates the share of cohorts born in or after the country-specific cutting
year70 (i.e., when the real GDP reached the British level of 1960).71 The variable varies from 0 to
0.91 (the United States in 2014). The Supplementary Material presents the full descriptive statistics
for this and all other variables.72
Hypothesis 2is operationalized through a variable Elective Institutions, which corresponds to
the sum of elective institutions in each country. It considers the presence of the following seven
items: transnational elective institution (i.e., the European Parliament), head of state, lower cham-
ber of parliament, upper chamber of parliament, regional level of government, local level of gov-
ernment, and nationwide referendum (at least one held in the five previous years). The information
comes mostly from the V-dem dataset73 and the number of institutions varies between 1 (e.g.,
Czechoslovakia in 1946) and 7 (Slovenia after 2000).74 The variable was recoded to vary from 0
to 1.
As regards alternative interpretations, the variables TU Membership and Party Membership op-
erationalize the group mobilization hypothesis. TU Membership corresponds to the share of trade
union membership in the working population.75 Party Membership was calculated by dividing the
membership of the winning party by the size of the total population.76 The variable Majority Status
measures the decisiveness of party competition and corresponds to the absolute value of the differ-
ence between 50% and the vote share of the election winner.77 Vote at 18 operationalizes voting age
68United Nations 2017.
69The data set gives the population age composition in 5-year age intervals and, thus, we had to assume even age
distribution within each interval. See the Supplementary Material for details.
70In five cases, the country entered the GDP database only after having reached $12,000 and the cutting year had
to be estimated through extrapolation. Removing those cases from the analysis has no effect on the substantive results
reported below. See the Supplementary Material (Note on Affluent Generations) for details.
71In a few countries, the level of development reached the threshold and then declined. In those cases, Affluent
Generations are those who were born and spend more than half of their youth (i.e., at least 10 years) above the
threshold.
72Kostelka and Blais 2021.
73Coppedge et al. 2017.
74The downside of this indicator is that some of the elections may be held concurrently, which reduces the negative
effect of the number of elective institutions. We partially control for this by including a dummy variable for concurrent
legislative and presidential elections in all our analyses. Furthermore, we conduct two robustness checks. The first
(Model A13 in Table ?? in the Supplemental Materials) shows that European Parliament elections, which have been
conducted since 1979 and typically held separately from legislative or presidential contests, are negatively associated
with legislative and presidential turnout. For the second robustness check, we were able to collect the full election
schedule and adjust the Elective Institutions variable for all types of simultaneous contests in 218 national elections
in 20 countries. The correlation between the adjusted and non-adjusted form of the variable is 0.94. In the regression
analysis (Model A14), the adjusted variable yields the expected strongly negative and statistically significant regression
coefficient. This suggests that the estimates displayed in our main analyses are robust.
75The data comes from the OECD (https://stats.oecd.org/, accessed on 21/07/2018).
76Party membership draws on the MAPP dataset (van Heute and Paulis 2016) where we interpolated data for
missing years. Given that party membership is usually not available for all parties in an election, we focus on winning
parties.
77The election winner is the party or candidate that received the largest vote share.
11
reforms and gives the share of the electorate that became eligible to vote at 18 years of age.78 The
role of income inequality is explored via the variable Gini (disp. income), which corresponds to
the Gini index of inequality in household disposable income from the Standardized World Income
Inequality Database79. Two variables test the direct and indirect effects of globalization. First, like
in Marshall and Fisher’s study,80 the variable FDI Flows measures the volume of foreign invest-
ment flows.81 Second, following Steiner and Martin,82 the variable Left/Right Polarization gauges
the polarization of party competition. It corresponds to the standard deviation of political parties’
positions on the left/right scale83 in the Manifesto Project data84.
In the full model specification, we control for the most important macro-level predictors of
voter turnout as identified in the scientific literature.85 Voter turnout is higher in those countries
where voting is compulsory and where electoral compulsion is enforced.86 We thus create two dum-
mies (Compulsory Voting and Compulsory Voting Enforced), which are coded as one respectively
when voting is made compulsory by law (or the constitution) and when abstention is sanctioned
(at least in rare cases). We include a dummy variable Presidential Election to allow for variation
across election types.87 Another dummy Concurrent Election takes the value of one when pres-
idential and legislative elections are held jointly. This should increase the benefit of voting, and
consequently boost voter turnout.88 In terms of party (or candidate) competition, another factor
to consider – in addition to Majority Status – is closeness, also known as the margin of victory.
Our variable Closeness corresponds to the difference in vote share between the first two parties or
candidates. The larger the value of this measure, the less uncertain the election outcome and the
lower the voting rate.89
In the analyses restricted to legislative elections, we control for the possibility that some elec-
78Like in the case of the share of affluent generations, we rely on the UN data on the countries’ age distribution in
the population and the dates of voting age reforms from electoral handbooks and official sources.
79Solt 2020.
80Marshall and Fisher 2015.
81We test exactly the same operationalization as Marshall and Fisher (2015), which is the absolute value of a
logarithmic transformation of FDI flows xexpressed in terms of GDP. Before the transformation, the original value
is increased by one so that the logarithmic function does not approach −∞ when FDI flows get close to zero (see
Equation 1). The original data come from the World Bank.
Variable FDI Flows =(ln(x+ 1) if x x < 0
ln(x+ 1) if x x0(1)
82Steiner and Martin 2012.
83The unit of observation is a party system, and each party’s contribution is weighted by its vote share. The robust-
ness checks presented in the Appendix also test party polarization on the economic and cultural axes as conceptualized
in Camia and Caramani 2012.
84Volkens et al. 2018.
85Geys 2006; Stockemer 2017.
86Fornos, Power, and Garand 2004.
87As our analysis uses fixed effects (see below), the dummy essentially tests the role of election type in those
semi-presidential or presidential political systems where legislative and presidential elections are held separately.
88Pacek, Pop-Eleches, and Tucker 2009.
89Blais 2000.
12
toral systems foster participation.90 We include dummies for proportional, majoritarian, mixed,
and other (e.g., single transferable vote) electoral systems as distinguished in the V-dem data set.
Since voter turnout in new democracies may be affected by the processes of democratization and
democratic consolidation,91 we allow for specific time trends in new democracies. For mutually ex-
clusive categories of pre-1974, post-1974, and post-communist new democracies, we coded three
democratization variables that range from 15 (1st year of democracy) to 0 (after the 16th year of
democracy).92 We originally controlled for the level of economic development (GDP per capita in
the 2011 prices), but the variable was never statistically significant. This is probably due to our
inclusion of country dummies (see below) and the restriction of our analysis to countries meeting
democratic standards, which tend to be economically developed.93 Given that the variable is not
available for some country-years, we show the analyses with GDP per capita (entered as both linear
and quadratic terms) only in the Supplementary Material. These analyses yield the same substan-
tive results as those presented in the next subsection.
The time-series-cross-sectional nature of the data requires special care in the specification of
regression models since the results could suffer from unit heterogeneity, auto-correlation, contem-
poraneous correlation, and non-stationarity.94 Concerning unit heterogeneity, we opt for a “within”
model by applying country fixed effects. This is the standard approach in the social sciences.95
Moreover, this choice fits particularly well with our research question since, in this paper, we are
interested in over-time change and not in the explanation of cross-national variation in the abso-
lute levels of turnout.96 The statistical tests applied to our preferred model (Model O below) also
indicate the presence of serial correlation (but neither non-stationarity nor contemporaneous corre-
lation).97 Since our panels are unbalanced and the data is cross-sectionally dominated, we cluster
standard errors by country.98 We show in the Supplementary Material that our results are robust to
90Stockemer 2015.
91Kostelka 2015,2017a.
92We follow the conceptualization and results from Kostelka 2017a where the period of 16 years roughly corre-
sponds to the first five democratic elections. By the 6th election, voter turnout in new democracies typically stabilizes
and does not differ from established democracies. Any shift from negative to positive values on Polity IV qualifies as
a democratic transition for this variable (but, as explained before, our data set includes only elections where Polity IV
6).
93In developed countries, further increases in development are unlikely to boost voter turnout through progress in
population literacy or election logistics (e.g. infrastructure etc.). This is confirmed in one of our robustness checks.
When we use a random effects specification, the coefficient of GDP becomes positive and highly statistically significant
(see Table SM1 in the Supplementary Material).
94Wilson and Butler 2007.
95Allison 2009.
96The choice of the fixed effects model is also suggested by Hausman’s specification test (H0 = no systematic
difference between the fixed and random model specifications, p <0.001). As our data are stationary (see Footnote
97), the fixed-effect estimation is also more efficient than a first-difference alternative (Wooldridge 2010, Section
10.7.1).
97We applied the tests suggested in Wooldridge 2010 for autocorrelation (H0 = no first-order autocorrelation, p
<0.05), in Baltagi 2008 for non-stationarity (H0 = panels are non-stationary, p <0.001), and contemporaneous
correlation in Pesaran 2004 (H0 = no contemporaneous correlation, p >0.1, estimate for a sub-sample of countries
with a sufficiently large number of election years). In addition, we show in the Appendix that using panel-corrected
standard errors (that correct for contemporaneous correlation and AR1 autocorrelation) has no effect on our findings.
98Wooldridge 2010, Section 13.8.2.
13
a range of alternative technical specifications.99
Results
Table 1presents a general overview of the post-1945 evolution of voting rates. It displays several
models that regress voter turnout on decades dummies controlling for election type and for de-
mocratization (in those models where new democracies are included). The reference category are
elections held since 2010. A positive coefficient associated with a decade dummy indicates that
turnout was higher in that decade than nowadays. We consider all democratic elections (Model A),
legislative elections (B), presidential elections (C), established democracies with enforced com-
pulsory voting (D), established democracies without compulsory voting (E), and 18 established
democracies without compulsory voting that held elections both in the 1960s and 2010s (F).100 In
all cases but one (Model D), we observe a clear negative trend in voter turnout. The table demon-
strates that the decline in voting is not specific to an election type (see models B and C) and that it
is not due to an increase in the number of democratic countries (Model F). Conversely, the results
of Model D show that, when compulsory voting is enforced and voters may be legally prosecuted
for abstention, voter turnout remains remarkably stable in time since most citizens vote in all elec-
tions. Countries that enforce compulsory voting are thus clearly not concerned by our research
question and are removed from the remaining analyses.101
To prevent the following analyses from being affected by factors specific to regime change, like
many earlier studies we restrict our principal analyses to established democracies.102 At the same
time, we demonstrate below that our main results hold even in a pooled analysis of established and
new democracies that do not enforce compulsory voting (see Model R in Table 3).
Before testing Hypotheses 1 and 2, we focus on the other explanations of voter decline in Ta-
ble 2. All models include the political and institutional controls, whose regression coefficients are
mostly statistically significant and in the expected direction. Voter turnout is higher when voting is
compulsory (even if not enforced) or when two elections (presidential and legislative) are held con-
currently. Participation also increases when the gap between the first two competitors diminishes
(Closeness) or when the winner gets close to the absolute majority (Majority Status). The latter
two variables simultaneously operationalize the party competition hypothesis but the comparison
of the decade dummies’ regression coefficients between Model E and Models G-K demonstrates
that, at best, they account for a small share of the decline. The remaining suspects are tested in
turn.103 Unexpectedly, none of them receives support from the data. Left-right polarization, party
99Kostelka and Blais 2021.
100Only some of these countries were consolidated democracies before 1960 and thus the 1940s and 1950s estimates
should be interpreted with caution as they may be affected by a different composition of the sample. The list of
countries is available in the note below Figure 4.
101We remove only those elections in which compulsory voting was enforced. For example, the post-1967 Dutch
elections are kept in the analyses as the Netherlands removed compulsory voting in 1967.
102Altogether we remove 660 elections because they were held in new democracies or countries with enforced
compulsory voting. Additional 61 elections are removed because of missing data on some of the key independent
variables. The remaining models are thus run usually on 700 elections or fewer depending on data availability.
103The number of observations varies from model to model because of data availability.
14
15
Table 1: Evolution of Voter Turnout 1945-2017
A
All
elections
B
All
Legislative elections
C
All
Presidential elections
D
Established dem.
Enforced CV
E
Established dem.
No enforced CV
F
Establishe dem.
18 cases (1960-2010)
1940s 7.36 (2.28)∗∗ 8.23 (2.28)∗∗∗ 4.31 (4.40) 0.05 (1.50) 3.07 (3.28) 3.63 (3.33)
1950s 8.81 (1.97)∗∗∗ 9.55 (1.87)∗∗∗ 7.19 (4.43) 0.18 (1.54) 5.03 (2.11)5.57 (2.22)
1960s 9.11 (1.42)∗∗∗ 9.37 (1.41)∗∗∗ 9.02 (2.98)∗∗ 0.72 (1.78) 8.24 (1.39)∗∗∗ 8.78 (1.47)∗∗∗
1970s 7.29 (1.75)∗∗∗ 7.78 (1.62)∗∗∗ 7.31 (3.96)+2.64 (2.73) 7.27 (1.38)∗∗∗ 7.85 (1.47)∗∗∗
1980s 7.68 (1.49)∗∗∗ 7.97 (1.37)∗∗∗ 7.05 (2.83)0.09 (2.04) 6.43 (1.39)∗∗∗ 7.25 (1.36)∗∗∗
1990s 4.45 (1.38)∗∗ 4.59 (1.23)∗∗∗ 5.07 (2.28)3.92 (3.44) 2.92 (1.16)3.63 (1.27)
2000s 1.13 (0.96) 1.04 (0.90) 1.73 (1.59) 0.55 (1.36) 0.01 (0.80) 0.41 (1.18)
Presidential Election 1.00 (0.89) 1.13 (0.88) 1.98 (1.38) 2.25 (2.78)
Pre-1974 Democratization 0.12 (0.17) 0.19 (0.19) 0.47 (0.36)
Post-1974 Democratization 0.10 (0.10) 0.07 (0.11) 0.09 (0.16)
Post-Communist Democratization 0.33 (0.14)0.36 (0.16)0.31 (0.20)
Constant 66.47 (0.85)∗∗∗ 67.32 (0.84)∗∗∗ 64.56 (1.35)∗∗∗ 86.84 (1.57)∗∗∗ 65.65 (0.68)∗∗∗ 67.83 (1.03)∗∗∗
Country FE Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
N1421 1034 387 140 700 373
R2 (within) 0.12 0.16 0.10 0.15 0.16 0.24
Note: OLS regression. Clustered standard errors by country in parentheses. Significance levels: +p < 0.1,p < 0.05,∗∗ p < 0.01,∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
membership, and FDI flows are statistically insignificant and their sign is in the wrong direction.
While trade union membership, vote at 18, and income inequality have the correct sign, their sub-
stantive significance is limited and they do not meet even the most lenient threshold of statistical
significance. Clearly, in the present comprehensive data set, there is no evidence that group mobi-
lization, voting-age reforms, income inequality, or economic globalization provide the solution to
the puzzle of voter decline.
We turn to Hypotheses 1 and 2 in Table 3. Models M to O test the variables Affluent Genera-
tions and Elective Institutions separately and jointly on the baseline sample of 700 elections from
Model E. Models P to R run additional tests respectively on legislative elections (only), the 18
stable established democracies from Model F in Table 1, and all elections (in both new and old
democracies) without enforced compulsory voting. In all models, both hypotheses receive strong
support from the data. The related variables are statistically and substantively significant and have
the correct sign. The larger the share of affluent cohorts or the larger the number of elective insti-
tutions, the lower voter turnout.
We present additional analyses in the Supplementary Material showing that the current results
hold when, inter alia, we test finer operationalizations of the elective institutions hypothesis on
subsets of our data set, control for per capita GDP and GDP growth, enter different operationaliza-
tions of time, use random effects (instead of fixed effects), or apply panel-corrected standard errors
(instead of clustered standard errors).
Analysis 2
Data & Methods
In the second analysis, we study in greater detail the generational explanation. To provide further
evidence, we conduct a series of logistic regressions of individual-level voter turnout using several
data sets. We mainly employ the four available waves of the Comparative Study of Electoral Sys-
tems.104 We replicate the key results using long-running national studies. In addition to the existing
cumulative data set of the American National Election Study (ANES, 1948-2016), we use freshly
aggregated data from the British Election Study (BES, 1964-2017) and Canadian Election Study
(CES, 1965-2015).105
It is well-known that the study of generational effects is fraught with difficulty because of
their perfect collinearity with the confounding combination of age and period effects (generation
= period - age). This identification problem can be addressed only through theoretically-based
assumptions.106 Following Persson and colleagues,107 we apply a two-level hierarchical model (in-
104The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems 2020. Like in Analysis 1, we restrict our analyses to countries that
do not enforce compulsory voting.
105See the Supplementary Material for a full list of included studies and elections.
106Glenn 1976; Bell and Jones 2018.
107Persson, Wass, and Oscarsson 2013.
16
17
Table 2: Test of Alternative Explanations Suggested in the Literature
G
Established dem.
No enforced CV
H
Established dem.
No enforced CV
I
Established dem.
No enforced CV
J
Established dem.
No enforced CV
K
Established dem.
No enforced CV
L
Established dem.
No enforced CV
1940s 2.56 (3.38) 8.21 (2.65)∗∗
1950s 3.18 (3.26) 8.07 (2.28)∗∗
1960s 8.25 (1.60)∗∗∗ 9.12 (2.79)∗∗ 6.32 (2.70)8.09 (1.05)∗∗∗ 8.99 (1.74)∗∗∗
1970s 7.24 (2.13)∗∗ 9.76 (2.33)∗∗∗ 5.51 (2.39)6.61 (1.75)∗∗∗ 7.04 (1.65)∗∗∗ 9.06 (1.79)∗∗∗
1980s 6.24 (2.15)∗∗ 7.09 (1.82)∗∗∗ 5.29 (1.89)∗∗ 5.78 (1.51)∗∗∗ 6.32 (1.47)∗∗∗ 7.38 (1.70)∗∗∗
1990s 3.37 (1.59)3.67 (1.62)2.24 (1.36) 3.26 (1.17)∗∗ 3.55 (1.16)∗∗ 4.88 (1.41)∗∗
2000s 0.66 (0.94) 0.37 (1.22) 0.09 (0.83) 0.69 (0.73) 0.18 (0.78) 1.27 (1.01)
Presidential Election 0.54 (2.78) 0.46 (1.25) 1.04 (1.23)
Majority Status 0.15 (0.06)0.18 (0.13) 0.14 (0.06)0.13 (0.05)0.13 (0.06)0.18 (0.07)∗∗
Closeness 0.15 (0.06)0.17 (0.08)+0.11 (0.04)∗∗ 0.10 (0.04)∗∗ 0.11 (0.04)∗∗ 0.14 (0.05)∗∗
Concurrent Election 15.16 (2.29)∗∗∗ 9.51 (2.88)∗∗ 9.39 (2.89)∗∗ 9.35 (2.75)∗∗ 15.24 (0.24)∗∗∗
Compulsory Voting 9.47 (4.76)+3.56 (1.80)+8.40 (3.63)4.69 (1.10)∗∗∗ 3.93 (1.10)∗∗∗ 8.16 (4.27)+
Group Mobilization:
TU Membership 0.04 (0.06)
Party Membership 0.12 (0.15)
Voting Age Reforms
Vote at 18 2.77 (3.99)
Income Inequality:
Gini (disp. income) 24.95 (18.39)
Globalization:
FDI Flows 0.30 (0.38)
Left/Right Polarization 0.00 (0.05)
Constant 67.08 (2.04)∗∗∗ 76.82 (3.29)∗∗∗ 67.88 (3.29)∗∗∗ 74.16 (6.99)∗∗∗ 65.01 (1.30)∗∗∗ 71.34 (2.11)∗∗∗
Country FE Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
N399 182 697 638 607 356
R2 (within) 0.46 0.50 0.31 0.22 0.26 0.45
Note: OLS regression. Clustered standard errors by country in parentheses. Countries with enforced compulsory voting are excluded. Significance levels: +p <
0.1,p < 0.05,∗∗ p < 0.01,∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
18
Table 3: Test of Generational and Institutional Change
M
Established
democracies
N
Established
democracies
O
Established
democracies
P
Established dem.
leg. elections
Q
Established dem.
18 cases (1960-2010)
R
All
democracies
1940s 0.97 (2.60) 3.59 (2.48) 0.56 (2.90) 0.18 (3.46) 0.31 (3.07) 0.85 (2.52)
1950s 1.63 (2.33) 4.02 (2.09)+0.06 (2.46) 0.53 (3.02) 0.22 (2.17) 2.21 (2.58)
1960s 4.94 (1.91)7.15 (1.40)∗∗∗ 3.42 (2.09) 2.85 (2.59) 3.45 (1.73)+4.47 (2.03)
1970s 4.57 (2.01)6.15 (1.54)∗∗∗ 3.06 (2.20) 2.80 (2.60) 3.14 (2.00) 2.70 (2.26)
1980s 4.50 (1.75)6.01 (1.41)∗∗∗ 3.80 (1.82)3.34 (2.14) 3.45 (1.64)+4.50 (1.80)
1990s 1.74 (1.23) 2.58 (1.08)1.33 (1.23) 1.42 (1.30) 0.94 (1.29) 3.33 (1.30)
2000s 0.23 (0.76) 0.01 (0.75) 0.33 (0.76) 0.65 (0.79) 1.00 (1.02) 0.09 (0.86)
Presidential Election 0.70 (1.27) 0.71 (1.29) 0.69 (1.29) 1.28 (2.58) 0.37 (0.97)
Majority Status 0.13 (0.06)0.13 (0.06)0.13 (0.05)0.12 (0.07)+0.19 (0.06)∗∗ 0.13 (0.06)
Closeness 0.10 (0.04)∗∗ 0.11 (0.04)∗∗ 0.10 (0.04)∗∗ 0.11 (0.04)∗∗ 0.15 (0.04)∗∗ 0.04 (0.03)
Concurrent Election 9.65 (2.80)∗∗∗ 9.62 (2.83)∗∗ 9.62 (2.81)∗∗ 11.95 (2.77)∗∗∗ 15.10 (2.02)∗∗∗ 8.08 (2.17)∗∗∗
Compulsory Voting 7.92 (3.06)7.98 (3.79)6.99 (2.93)6.92 (3.22)8.11 (3.79)13.01 (3.69)∗∗∗
Hypotheses 1 and 2:
Affluent Generations 7.03 (3.06)8.25 (3.05)∗∗ 8.21 (3.78)6.82 (2.08)∗∗ 7.57 (3.41)
Elective Institutions 8.57 (3.36)10.33 (3.30)∗∗ 11.63 (3.04)∗∗∗ 9.37 (3.31)11.70 (4.20)∗∗
Pre-1974 Democratization 0.20 (0.18)
Post-1974 Democratization 0.04 (0.14)
Post-Communist Democratization 0.15 (0.15)
Proportional Elect. System 1.61 (2.40)
Mixed Elect. System 1.96 (1.50)
Other Elect. System 3.05 (1.17)
Constant 67.88 (1.56)∗∗∗ 70.96 (2.58)∗∗∗ 74.38 (2.93)∗∗∗ 78.25 (3.87)∗∗∗ 77.93 (3.14)∗∗∗ 72.33 (3.22)∗∗∗
Country FE Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
N700 700 700 527 373 1103
R2 (within) 0.32 0.32 0.33 0.44 0.55 0.22
Note: OLS regression. Clustered standard errors by country in parentheses. Countries with enforced compulsory voting are excluded. Significance levels: +p <
0.1,p < 0.05,∗∗ p < 0.01,∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
dividuals nested in elections) after reducing the number of levels through country fixed effects.108
Our models assume the presence of broad generational groups identified through dummy variables
and, altogether, test three generational schemes. The first scheme operationalizes Hypothesis 1via
a dummy variable Affluent Generations, which identifies those individuals who were born after
their country reached the real GDP of $12,000 in 2011 dollars. The second scheme tests the voting
age hypothesis. The dummy variable Vote at 18 codes as 1 those respondents who became eligible
to vote at the age of 18. Finally, the third scheme delves into generational differences indepen-
dent of economic development and voting age. It adopts the Pew Research Center’s taxonomy,109
distinguishing the Silent Generation (respondents born before 1945), Baby-Boomers (1945-1964),
Generation X (1965-1980), and Millenials (1981-) who serve as the reference category. While
these labels draw on the U.S. experience, the periodization largely reflects global events (the end
of the Second World War, the cultural revolts in the 1960s, etc.) and the scheme is routinely used
overseas.110 Our theory implies that the first scheme (Affluent Generation) provides the most pow-
erful explanation.
All models control for a quadratic function of age in years (i.e., age effects), year of the survey
(to operationalize the time trend), and employ election-specific random intercepts to account for
the context of each election (i.e., period effects). In addition, while we are primarily interested in
the unconditional effects of generational change,111 one model specification includes individual-
level and macro-level controls. The individual-level controls comprise dummy variables for gender
(ref. category Male), education (Primary), income (Quintile 1), and trade union membership (Not
Member). The macro-level controls are all the control variables from Analysis 1 and the Elective
Institutions variable.112 If Hypothesis 1is valid and the generational differences are driven by a
changing value structure, these controls should not significantly diminish the effect of the genera-
tional variables.
Results
Table 4displays six regression models. Models S, T, and V test Hypothesis 1, the voting age
hypothesis, and the Pew scheme respectively. Models U and W conduct simultaneous tests and,
finally, Model X include the controls and Elective Institutions. The regression coefficient of Af-
fluent Generations is substantively and statistically significant and of a similar magnitude in all
model specifications.113 Likewise, Election Institutions yields the expected negative regression
coefficient, which provides additional support for Hypothesis 2. By contrast, Vote at 18 and the
Pew-based scheme yield statistically and substantively insignificant coefficients, especially when
entered jointly with Affluent Generations. In the rest of the analysis, we thus focus on Hypothesis 1.
108See Arzheimer 2009.
109Pew Research Center 2015.
110See e.g., Intergenerational Commission 2018.
111This is because only the unconditional effects can reveal how much generational change contributes to the voter
decline, which this study aims to explain.
112Compulsory voting had to be dropped because of the country fixed effects and a lack of temporal variation.
113The Supplementary Material shows that these results are robust to the inclusion of additional individual-level or
macro-level controls such as democratic satisfaction or income inequality (see Table ??).
19
Table 4: Individual-level Analysis (CSES data)
S
Affluent Generations T
Vote at 18
U
Simultaneous Test V
Pew Generations W
Simultaneous Test X
All Controls
Generational Explanations
Affluent Generations 0.25 (0.02)∗∗∗ 0.26 (0.02)∗∗∗ 0.25 (0.02)∗∗∗ 0.20 (0.03)∗∗∗
Vote at 18 0.04 (0.02) 0.01 (0.02)
Silent Generation (-1945) 0.13 (0.06)0.11 (0.06)+
Boomers (1946-1964) 0.01 (0.04) 0.03 (0.04)
Generation X (1965-1980) 0.05 (0.02)0.03 (0.02)
Individual-Level Controls
Age 0.08 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.08 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.08 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.09 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.08 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.06 (0.00)∗∗∗
Age x Age 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗
Female 0.06 (0.02)∗∗∗
Income (Q2) 0.22 (0.02)∗∗∗
Income (Q3) 0.37 (0.02)∗∗∗
Income (Q4) 0.51 (0.03)∗∗∗
Income (Q5) 0.63 (0.03)∗∗∗
High School 0.40 (0.02)∗∗∗
Some College 0.51 (0.03)∗∗∗
College & Above 0.94 (0.03)∗∗∗
TU membership 0.23 (0.02)∗∗∗
Macro-Level Controls
Presidential Election 0.75 (0.37)
Majority Status 0.02 (0.01)+
Closeness 0.00 (0.01)
Concurrent Elections 1.00 (0.30)∗∗∗
Elective Institutions 1.45 (0.56)∗∗
Year 0.00 (0.01) 0.00 (0.01) 0.00 (0.01) 0.00 (0.01) 0.00 (0.01) 0.01 (0.01)
Constant 3.47 (16.03) 1.23 (16.07) 3.24 (16.03) 0.82 (16.18) 5.67 (16.15) 10.61 (17.31)
Var (Elections) 0.18 (0.03)∗∗∗ 0.18 (0.03)∗∗∗ 0.18 (0.03)∗∗∗ 0.18 (0.03)∗∗∗ 0.18 (0.03)∗∗∗ 0.17 (0.03)∗∗∗
Country FE Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
N (individuals) 184061 184061 184061 184061 184061 131217
N (elections) 116 116 116 116 116 108
Note: CSES data (waves 1-4). Hierarchical logistic regression with random intercepts for elections and coun-
try fixed effects. Significance levels: +p < 0.1,p < 0.05,∗∗ p < 0.01,∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
Figure 2graphically illustrates the substantive significance of Affluent Generations. It shows
the predicted probability to vote based on Model S from Table 4.114 The difference between affluent
generations and their elders amounts to nearly 6 percentage points. Interestingly, this magnitude is
close to what we observed in the macro-analysis of elections (Analysis 1), where the coefficient of
Affluent Generations oscillated around 7 percentage points. Of course, these estimates correspond
to the potential maximal effects of generational replacement and not to the amount of the decline in
voter turnout generation effects account for. This amount is properly estimated in the next section.
But we first further examine the empirical evidence on Hypothesis 1.
To minimize the risk that the result from Model S is based on random noise and to check the
appropriateness of the $12,000 benchmark, we replicated the analysis using alternative thresholds
of economic affluence ranging from $6,000 to $18,000. If Hypothesis 1is correct and there is a
generational divide around $12,000, the coefficient of Affluent Generations should decline if lower
or higher thresholds are chosen.115 This is exactly what Figure 3shows. The substantive signifi-
114The only difference is that the estimation used for Figure 2uses data weighted with real voter turnout rates to
correct for over-reporting. This allows for a more realistic estimation of the magnitude of the generational difference
in voting.
115If a lower threshold is chosen, the group of younger, less active generations will include some individuals from
the older, active generations. If a higher threshold is chosen, the group of older, active generations will include some
individuals from the younger, less active generations. In both cases, the regression coefficient should be weaker.
20
Figure 2: Generational Difference in the Probability to Vote (CSES data)
cance of the regression coefficient gradually rises as the value of the threshold approaches $12,000,
where the coefficient reaches its maximum. The theory-based choice of the $12,000 benchmark is
thus correct. However, had we chosen any other value in between $10,000 and $14,000, we would
observe similar, albeit slightly weaker results. Clearly, there is a robust relationship between being
born in a context of relative affluence and the propensity to abstain.
To further test the robustness of our findings, we replicated Model S using the ANES, CES,
and BES datasets, which, inter alia, have the advantage of covering much longer time-spans.116
Table 5shows that, in all three cases, the Affluent Generations variable has the expected sign and
is substantively and statistically significant. In terms of predicted probability to vote, there is a
generational gap of 3.1, 7.6, and 8.5 points in the U.S., British, and Canadian national elections
respectively. In those countries, generational replacement thus may account for most of the decline
at the aggregated level, which amounts to 3.6 points in the US presidential elections, 9.3 in the
British legislative elections, and 11.2 in the Canadian legislative elections.117 This provides further
support for Hypothesis 1.
116Given that these are single-country analyses with a limited number of elections, we follow Blais, Gidengil, and
Nevitte (2004) and apply single-level logistic regressions with election fixed effects and standard errors clustered by
election.
117The declines were calculated based on those elections that are covered by the national election studies (US:
1948-2016; Britain: 1966-2017; Canada: 1965-2015).
21
Figure 3: Generational Differences (CSES data) – Alternative Thresholds
0.013
−0.025
−0.051
−0.056
−0.043
−0.023
−0.015
.08
.06
.04
.02
0
?.02
−.04
.06
−.08
Gener. Gap in the Predicted Probability to Vote
$6,000 $8,000 $10,000 $12,000 $14,000 $16,000 $18,000
Alternative Generational Divides (Defined in GDP per Capita)
Table 5: Individual-level Analysis (National Election Studies)
ANES BES CES
Affluent Generations 0.13 (0.06)0.39 (0.08)∗∗∗ 0.41 (0.11)∗∗∗
Age 0.11 (0.01)∗∗∗ 0.07 (0.01)∗∗∗ 0.08 (0.01)∗∗∗
Age x Age 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗ 0.00 (0.00)∗∗∗
Constant 1.85 (0.16)∗∗∗ 0.11 (0.14) 0.17 (0.23)
Election FE Yes Yes Yes
N53021 38617 38372
Pseudo R2 0.08 0.05 0.04
Note: American National Election Study (1948-2016), British Election Study (1964-2017) and Canadian
Election Study (1965-2015) respectively. Single-level logistic regressions with election fixed effects and clus-
tered standard errors by election in parentheses. Significance levels: +p < 0.1,p < 0.05,∗∗ p < 0.01,
∗∗∗ p < 0.001.
Quantifying the Sources of Decline
Analyses 1 and 2 provide evidence for Hypotheses 1 and 2. However, we do not yet know how
much of the observed decline these hypotheses explain. To that effect, we move back to the
aggregated-level (Analysis 1) and focus on the 18 countries that conducted democratic elections
22
both in the 1960s and 2010s. In them, voter turnout declined by 8 points.118 We estimate how voter
turnout would change if, in the 2010s, the independent variables included in the full regression
model (Model Q Table 3) took the values from the 1960s.119 We provide two estimations. The first
is conservative as it is based on Model Q that includes decade dummies. Their inclusion controls
for the time-trend, which eliminates the risk of a spurious correlation but simultaneously may ab-
sorb some of the explanatory power of the substantive variables. For the other, liberal estimation,
we replicated Model Q without the decade dummies in the regression analysis. This gives more
leeway to the substantive variables but, of course, runs the risk of spuriousness in some of the
explained variance.
The conservative and liberal estimations are displayed in Figure 4. In both cases, the largest
contribution to the decline (2.9 and 4.5 points) stems from generational replacement, the share
of affluent cohorts having increased from 0 to 0.44 on average between the 1960s and 2010s.
Reforms relative to elective institutions, including fewer concurrent elections, come second (1.4
and 1.7 points),120 followed by party/candidate competition (0.5 and 1 pp).121 Whereas the decline
is clearly multi-causal in nature, generational replacement appears to be the most powerful factor.
Altogether, the two estimations amount to 4.8 and 7.2 percentage points respectively, which means
that the present model accounts for between 60 % and 90 % of the total 8-percentage-point decline.
These estimations suggest that our two hypotheses jointly explain a substantial part of the global
decline in voter turnout.
Discussion
We have investigated the causes of the global decline in voter turnout in democracies. For this in-
vestigation we have built a data set of more than 1400 national democratic elections held between
1945 and 2017 and we have combined this aggregate analysis with an examination of individual
survey data, both cross-nationally (CSES) and longitudinally (in Britain, Canada, and the U.S.).
Our results provide no support for the detrimental effects of economic globalization or weakened
group mobilization. Nor do we find that lowering the voting age substantially contributed to the
decline. Among the prominent explanations advanced in the existing macro-analyses, only the role
of majority status in party competition is partly supported. However, shifts in majority status are
responsible only for a small share of the decline and are largely compensated by today’s more com-
petitive elections. Instead, we find that most of the decline comes from two sources: one cultural
and one institutional.
118This magnitude of the decline (8 points) is slightly lower than the value of the 1960s dummy variable in Model
F in Table 1(8.8 points). This is because our quantification of the decline is based on country-decade averages, which
ensures that the weight of each country is the same regardless of how many elections this country held in the given
decade.
119We predicted voter turnout using the results from Model Q and replacing the 2010s values of the independent
variables by those from the 1960s.
120This total contribution combines the effects of the variables Elective Institutions (1.2 or 1.5 pp) and Concurrent
Elections (0.2 pp in both estimations).
121In fact, majority status depressed voter turnout by 1.5 and 1.8 points but this was partially offset by a more
competitive character of elections (i.e., smaller values on election closeness, +1 and +0.8 points).
23
24
Figure 4: Contributions to the 1960s-2010s Decline in 18 Established Electoral Democracies
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Contributions to the Decline (8 percentage points in total)
Estimation 1 (Conservative)
Generational Replacement (2.9 pp) Elective Institutions (1.4 pp) Party/Candidate Competition (0.5 pp)
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Contributions to the Decline (8 percentage points in total)
Estimation 2 (Liberal)
Generational Replacement (4.5 pp) Elective Institutions (1.7 pp) Party/Candidate Competition (1 pp)
Note: The 18 included countries that held democratic elections without enforced compulsory voting in the 1960s and 2010s are: Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark,
Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, the United States. The
conservative estimation draws on regression Model Q from Table 3. The liberal estimation employs a replication of Model Q that omits decade dummy variables.
The generational replacement explanation trumps all other accounts. While the presented evi-
dence is correlational, there are several reasons for being fairly confident about this finding. First, it
holds across a large variety of model specifications in the macro-analysis: for various sub-samples
of electoral democracies, in the presence of alternative time indicators, or more generic variables
(per capita GDP). Second, this finding matches the evidence on generational differences in voting
rates from a number of recent micro-level longitudinal studies – panels and rolling cross-sections
– that we discussed in the theory section. Third, our own generational analysis of individual-level
data, whose design allows for a close inspection of the generational divide, fully corroborates the
distinction between affluent cohorts and their older counterparts. Fourth, the patterns of participa-
tion that we observe both at the macro- and micro-levels are consistent with the expectation of less
duty-based citizenship as described in the literature on value change.122
Another factor that is consistently supported in this analysis is the rise in the number of elec-
tive institutions. While its contribution is relatively modest when compared to that of generational
replacement, it is still more than twice as large as the contribution of party competition. Although
this factor has been largely absent in existing accounts of the global decline, this finding empir-
ically supports the widely held views about the reasons for the exceptionally low voter turnout
in the United States and Switzerland, and it matches evidence from a number of geographically
circumscribed analyses.
The present findings support the existence of an ongoing profound transformation in participa-
tion trends in electoral democracies. This transformation is not over yet as, even in those countries
that reached the age of affluence early on such as the United States or Canada, affluent cohorts still
do not represent the entirety of their respective electorates. Generational replacement may thus,
unless off-set by other factors, further reduce participation rates in the years to come.123 These
findings support some of the central claims of the literature on value change and invite further
research into the underlying mechanisms through which economic development affects citizens’
sense of civic duty and other relevant values and attitudes.
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Supplementary resource (1)

... There is a consolidated pattern of voter turnout decline worldwide. In advanced industrial democracies and young democratic regimes, a growing number of people renounce their voting rights each election and stay away from ballot boxes (e.g., Beramendi and Anderson, 2008;Dahl et al., 2018;Kostelka and Blais, 2021). Even democracies adopting compulsory voting have been experiencing an increase in voter abstention (Katz, Levin et al., 2018). ...
... In many democracies, voter turnout is higher among the rich than the poor (Kostelka and Blais, 2021;Shafer et al., 2021). It is commonly accepted among political theorists that individuals should enjoy primary conditions of subsistence to employ all their social and political capacities (Sen, 1982;Pettit, 2012). ...
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Political theorists and enthusiasts of basic income programs advocate that receiving an unconditional, periodic, and nonwithdrawable cash payment can encourage voter turnout by freeing citizens' time, energy, and cognitive bandwidth. This paper provides the first quantitative assessment of this argument by studying Renda Básica de Cidadania (RBC) -- currently the largest basic income program in Latin America. RBC pays a monthly transfer equivalent to 15% (R$170 approx. US$35) of the national minimum wage to 42,000 (25%) of individuals living in Maricá, Brazil. Estimates from a difference-in-differences design show a substantive increase in voter turnout after the adoption of the basic income. Besides turnout, the RBC is also associated with a reduction of invalid votes -- which tends to signal voters' lack of information about candidates or their dissatisfaction with the candidate pool. These effects appear in local and general elections and are robust across different models.
... This combination of high polarisation and low political diversity results in a decrease in citizens' satisfaction with democracy [14]. In addition, Western democracies suffer more and more from low turnout rates [15], which further weakens the political systems. It is therefore essential to find solutions that ensure citizens' support. ...
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Thesis
This dissertation studies the puzzling decline of voter turnout in ten post­communist democracies that joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007. These countries experienced the most spectacular erosion of electoral participation in democratic regimes since World War Two. To solve this puzzle, my dissertation follows a systematic, theory­based, quantitative and comparative approach. It is structured by a newly­conceived master conceptual scheme for the study of aggregated voter turnout. This theoretical framework distinguishes between four types of turnout drivers based on the nature and temporality of their effects. The role of each type in the post­communist decline is theorised and considered in turn. The empirical sections employ several types of quantitative methods and intra­ but also inter­regional comparisons with established and other new democracies. They draw on several original datasets, the most important of which comprises the quasi­totality of democratic legislative elections held around the globe between 1939 and 2010. The results question the conventional wisdom that the post­communist turnout decline is mostly due to citizens’ dissatisfaction. Instead, they show that it is driven by no less than six other causes that relate to democratisation, institutional change and shifts in the composition of the electorate. It is the multiplicity of causal factors that explains the unparalleled startling magnitude by which voting rates decreased in the ten countries at hand. Besides solving the central puzzle, this dissertation yields a number of new middle­range theories and insights that pertain to electoral participation in both new and established democracies.
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