Friday, November 16, 2012

When is High Voter Turnout Bad?

Posted by Professor William Reisinger

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election.  Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.  . . .  Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone.  Whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference."
Barack Obama, November 6, 2012
President Obama’s comments reflect a widely held article of faith: we realize the ideals of democracy only when a substantial portion of us votes. A high voter turnout is about the only way for a 21st-century country to approximate the participatory ideals of Athenian democracy or the New England town hall. Most of us accept that those who neglect this civic duty have done a disservice to their country, at least in a minor way. Correspondingly, it is vital that the act of voting should be relatively easy and equally available to all eligible citizens. For many experts, low turnout poses serious risks for the body politic. The distinguished political scientist and expert on democracy Arend Lijphart used his address as president of the American Political Science Association to argue that “unequal participation spells unequal influence” and that voting, like other forms of political participation, is not randomly distributed but more common among some types of citizens than others. Low voter turnout leaves some social groups poorly represented. 

Thus, voter turnout is often treated as an unalloyed asset.  Indeed, some scholars have even used it to measure the level of democracy in different countries: a country where 90% or more of the eligible citizens vote is, by this measure, more democratic than one in which 60% vote.  (Which of these is the United States?  Find the answer at George Mason University’s United States Election Project.)  One practical objection to this, however, is that turnout levels vary quite a bit even among the world’s full-fledged democracies.  You can see this at the excellent site on voter turnout around the world maintained by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.  Ask yourself this: is Australia (with 93% turnout in its last parliamentary election) more democratic than the U.K. (65%)?  If so, it is probably for reasons other than turnout per se.  
We can at least agree, however, that more people voting is never a bad thing, right?  Well . . . not so fast. 
Perhaps, in reading the paragraphs above, you were thinking of a potential voter sitting in isolation, weighing her good intentions against the need to get to work on time or put the kids to bed or watch the basketball game or whatever.  Yes, that scenario is one part of the dynamic.  Yet it misses out on the more important social dimension of voting.  Citizens vote because they are mobilized to vote.  Other people and organizations entice, cajole, flatter, badger, threaten and reward them.  (President Obama’s remarks quoted above and similar statements from other politicians can be seen as part of how Americans are mobilized to vote, in the category of flattery.)  Turning potential voters into those who have voted is not easy; it must overcome the many other activities that compete for our time as well as the improbability that one’s vote will play a decisive role in the outcome.  Citizens receive mobilizing messages from friends (especially Facebook friends?), relatives, co-workers and others.  Non-partisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters promote voting.  Political parties and groups supporting a party spend tremendous time and money to encourage and assist their supporters in voting.  Their efforts have spawned a large, increasingly sophisticated industry. 

In considering whether higher turnout is better than lower turnout, what matters is how voters are mobilized.  Some techniques reinforce democracy, while others erode it.  Democratic modes of voter mobilization include spreading information and opinions relevant to voters’ choices (albeit frequently “negative”).  Even the partisan efforts promote the social acceptability of voting among all.  Authoritarian mobilization, however, involves buying or coercing votes from the economically or socially vulnerable while rarely enhancing voters’ knowledge or choices.  In many parts of the world, high turnout is guaranteed because those who run factories and farms let the workers and farmers know that voting is required and will be monitored.  (The workplace may provide a bus to take everyone to the polling station, for example.)  In the world’s most highly repressive places, turnout rates can reach 99-100%.  Moreover, these voters are often also directed how to vote or given pre-filled-in ballots to deposit (returning the blank one they receive to the organizer so it can be filled in and given to someone else).  If you’re interested, Daniel Calingaert reviews some of the many ways that elections can be rigged; it is impressive, in a sad way. 
My examination of elections in Russia illustrates how higher voter turnout can signal less democracy.  I have compared turnout levels for Russia’s 83 regions (equivalent of U.S. states) in each of Russia’s presidential and parliamentary elections, from 1991-2012.  In the 1990s, Russian elections had their share of fraud, particularly in the 1996 run-off when President Yeltsin defeated his challenger from the Communist Party.  Nonetheless, the fraud was small enough that the election results do tell us something about voter behavior in the different regions.  During this period, a region’s turnout correlated well with two characteristics that one would expect to promote turnout.  One is the number of elderly in the region’s population.  The elderly in many countries vote at a higher rate than the young.  The other is support in the region for the Communist Party.  Why should this boost turnout?  Because in those regions with a strong presence by the Communist Party, the races were closer, and voting carried more potential impact. 

In the 2000s, however, President Vladimir Putin built a political regime centered around strong election victories for himself, or his temporary surrogate, Dmitrii Medvedev, and the political party United Russia.  Political authorities throughout the country focused on pressuring people to vote in the “right” way.  During the six elections held from 2003-2012, turnout changed in multiple ways.  For a small minority of regions, turnout above 90% became the norm.  In the March 2012 presidential election, for example, the average region had turnout at 67%, while Chechnya reported an official turnout level of 99.6%!  Also in the 2000s, regions having more elderly are no longer the high-turnout regions.  Even more remarkably, the correlation with support for the Communist Party went from strongly positive in the 1990s to strongly negative in the 2000s.  In recent years, the Communist Party’s supporters have not imagined they could win the election if only enough of them voted.  Instead, high support for the Communist Party in a given region is only a signal that Putin and United Russia are not as strong there as elsewhere.  What does correlate with high regional turnout levels?  The percent of a region’s residents who are ethnically non-Russian.  That is, the regions called republics, like Chechnya, have been able to mobilize their residents to vote at rates equal to the super-high Soviet levels.  It would seem, then, that Russia’s hopes for democracy rest on residents in regions where turnout has been substantially lower, such as in Moscow, where 58% voted in March 2012. 
Not coincidentally, the regions that reported turnout over 90% also voted for Putin or United Russia at suspiciously high levels.  For example, 99.7% of Chechnya’s voters chose Putin this last March.  Given the high turnout, this means that, supposedly, Putin received votes from 99.4% of all the adults living in the region.  (For comparison: the equivalent figure for the District of Columbia voting for President Obama in 2012 was 47%.  Obama received 94% of the votes cast, but turnout was about half of Chechnya’s; 94/2=47.)  Although not among Russia’s more populous regions, Chechnya and other republics have given Putin and his party significant quantities of votes.  In 2012, Putin would not have won the presidency on the first ballot without their extraordinary efforts. 
So it matters quite a bit how turnout is generated.  A democracy in which most people vote is stronger for that.  Focusing on countries’ turnout levels alone, however, is misleading.  Even more misleading is to treat turnout itself as a measure of democracy.  Doing so helps the PR efforts of authoritarian regimes, which find it quite easy to produce high turnout.  Supporters of democracy do not want authoritarian leaders to get bragging rights for activities that actually reduce their citizen's freedom.

Professor Reisinger is teaching a class on Democracy: Global Trends and Struggles(30:196) during the Spring 2013 semester

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