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What explains the decline in voter turnout in most democracies in the last few decades? In your answer, consider one or two explanations that you consider most important and empirical evidence supporting or rejecting them.
Caramani states in her book entitled Comparative Politics that “democracy does not work without the (voluntary and involuntary) political participation of citizens.” (Caramani, 2014) However, in the last few decades, there has been a considerable decline in voter turnout in most liberal democracies. Voter turnout has declined by about 10% between the 1950s and the 1990s in 19 different democracies (Wattenberg, 2000.) Arguably, this is due to two main factors; the shift in political activity and the individual citizen’s perceived effect in said elections. Between December 2015-2016, the membership of the Labour Party rose by about 156,000 members according to the latest accounts released by the Electoral Commission. The 2014 Scottish referendum also saw an incredibly high turnout, one of 84.6%. This shift in political activity, caused by the decline in social and religious cleavages, in turn has led to the decline in voter turnout as citizen’s have become less affiliated with the party that they used to abide by. The urbanization of society has led to the expansion of different political activity, meaning that citizen’s no longer feel obliged to vote in elections. Similarly, another main reason that has led to a decline in voter turnout is due to citizen’s feeling as if their vote does not count. This is a particularly prominent issue in countries that do not use a proportional representation system as often Tyranny of the Majority is a key issue. This issue has been become particularly noticeable after the 2010 coalition government in the United Kingdom and the 2016 United States election, during which Hillary Clinton received more votes, however Donald Trump won the election. However, it is interesting to note that turn out to elections in which the individual citizen has more influence, eg. Local or police elections have a lower turnout out then the general elections themselves. Due to these two reasons, it is arguable that one can explain the decline in voter turnout over the last few decades.
Firstly, one explanation of the decline in voter turnout in most democracies over the last few decades is the shift of political activity. Franklin argues that “elections in recent years may show lower turnout for the simple reason that these elections decide issues of lesser importance than elections did in the 1950s.” According to the Electoral Commission released on the 31st December 2016 by the UK Parliament, the membership of parties is actually on the rise, whilst turnout is declining (Figure A)
As displayed by Figure A, one can see a clear increase in the membership of the main parties which is still increasing to this day. Similarly, there has been both an increase in use of referendums and the turnout to them in the United Kingdom over the last few decades. There is a significant difference in the turnout between the 2011 AV referendum which only received a turnout of 42.2% and the Scottish Referendum which received a turnout of 84.6%, again highlighting the significance of the shift of political activity. In talking about Norway’s political activity, Listhaug and Gronfilaten state that whilst the turnout has decreased, “the boarder the political activity has increased. This rise in political involvement is quite widespread, covering political interest and political discussion.” Within 8 years, the turnout of Norwegian Parliamentary elections dropped from 84% to 75.8% from 1985 to 1993. (Statista,2017)
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However, it is one point to acknowledge that voter turnout has declined due to the shift in political activity but one should acknowledge and address the reasons behind this. Citizens of liberal democracies are no longer feeling affiliated with their parties that they have been loyal to due to social and religious cleavages. As these social and religious cleavages are blurring, parties are arguably becoming more extreme and separate from each other, meaning people no longer affiliate with a party. Between 1952 and 2000, the percentage of Americans that identify as an independent has risen from 23% to 40% (Hershey, 2006.) It is arguable that the Republican party has swayed towards the Tea Party Movement in the last decade however, the citizens themselves are becoming more liberal which is evident in the passing of the civil marriage law in 2015. Therefore, as people are not affiliating themselves towards a party, they are less likely to vote.
This is further enhanced by the fact that social and religious cleavages have begun to break down meaning people no longer feel forced to vote for a particular party. In Verba et al. 1995, it is argued that there are two factors that appear to be important in the reasoning of why social class affected voter turnout: “access to political resource and political interest” ((Verba et al. 1995) Caramani, 2014) As families from an upper-class background were able to give their children a good education, an interest in politics was implemented from before they could vote meaning they were more likely to vote than those from a middle or working-class family. Caramani agrees with this point stating that “Furthermore, the capacity to process information enables citizens to identify more efficient strategies to pursue their objective through political action.” (Caramani, 2014) Similarly, if the ‘wrong’ party was voted into Parliament, those from an upper-class background had more to lose so they felt the need to stay loyal towards their party and always vote. However, due to the beginnings of the decay of social class, people no longer feel affiliated to vote for a particular party therefore meaning the turnout of elections declined.
Secondly, another explanation of the decline in voter turnout in most democracies in the last few decades is due to citizens not feeling as if their vote makes any difference in the grand scheme of things. In recent years, different countries have found themselves in political situations where the majority of people’s votes and opinions have not been heard. The electoral system used by each country plays a large part in the representation of the country. Under proportional representation, people’s votes and opinions are more likely to be heard, as the number of seats awarded are directly proportional to the number of votes. However, for majoritarian systems such as France, there is often the issue of tyranny of the majority. Tyranny of the Majority occurs when a government takes action on what is supported by the majority of the citizens, however completely disregards the rest of the country. An example of this would be in the United States 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with 65.8 million votes and Donald Trump only got 62.9 million, meaning Hillary Clinton finished with almost 3 million more votes. However, due to the electoral system in place, Donald Trump finished as the President of the United States. (BBC, 2016)
Similarly, in the United Kingdom 2010 election, many citizens felt hard done by as the combination of government that ended up in Parliament was not voted for. This is due to the fact that no one reached a majority meaning a coalition government had to be formed between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Therefore, there has been a decline in voting since then in local elections as people believe that their vote cannot make a difference.
However, it is interesting to note that the turnout to elections in which citizens have a greater chance of influencing and swaying the vote, there is a lower turnout. As previously mentioned, the turnout for the United Kingdom general election of 2010 was 65.1% however, the local elections in 2014 only received a turnout of 35.7% (Rallings, 2014) and the police elections in 2012 only had a turnout of a mere 11%. This suggests that this theory of decline in voter turnout could actually be incorrect, in that citizens are losing interest altogether in Politics. Furthermore, in 2011, the United Kingdom had a referendum on whether to change to the Alternate Vote electoral system however there was only a turnout of 41%, highlighting the public’s disinterest in politics. However, one could argue that individual votes had been being ignored for such a long time that citizens by 2014 had given up on voting as they knew they would not make a difference, especially in a country with a plurality system.
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To conclude, one can argue that the two most important factors of the decline in voter turnout over the last few decades in most democracies is both the shift of political activity and the fact that citizens feel as if they are unheard. These have become prominent issues in the last few decades as due to the urbanization of society, different types of political activity have unfolded meaning that there are other ways to be politically active. In 2008, 49% of the United Kingdom agreed that they had a right to be active citizens and stay politically active (Ipsos-Mori, 2008). So, although there has been a significant decline in voter turnout, there has not been a decrease in political activity as there has been more use of referendums and party membership has increased. The other main reason that voter turnout has declined in most democracies in the last few decades is that people feel like their voices are not heard due to the electoral system being used in their country. Therefore, they have started to not make an effort in politics eg. through voting in elections as they find it pointless. Both these factors in turn have led to the decline in voter turnout in most democracies in the last few decades.
- BBC, (2016) “US Election 2016” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/us2016/results
- Business Inside, 2016 “Trump Shocks the World” http://uk.businessinsider.com/election-results-live-blog-2016-11?r=US&IR=T
- Carramani, D (2014) “Comparative Politics” edition 3, (Unite States of America, Oxford University Press)
- Hershey, M (2006) Party Politics in America. 12th edition. New York: Pearson Longman
- House Of Commons, (2017) “Membership of UK Political Parties” http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN05125
- Ipsos-Mori (2008) Hansard Society: Audit of Political Engagement 6, http://www.ipsos-mori.com/_assets/politicaltrends/pdf/ape-6-topline.pdf
- Ralling and Thrasher, (2014) “Local elections in England May 2014” Electoral Commission of 2014 https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/175062/Local-elections-2014-Electoral-data-report.pdf
- Statista, (2017) “Voter turnout of national parliamentary elections in Norway from 1945 to 2017” https://www.statista.com/statistics/691609/voter-turnout-of-national-parliamentary-elections-in-norway/#0
- Wattenberg, M (2000) “The Decline of Party Mobilization; in Parties without Partisan” ed. R. Dalton and M Wattenberg (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press)
- Verba et al., (1995) “Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press)
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