Politicians must connect emotionally with issues to halt global voter apathy, new research shows

  • Date

    Wed 22 Sep 21

portait photo of Dr Filip Kostelka

Voter numbers across the world have declined by over 10 percentage points since the 1960s and new research reveals this is potentially due to lack of engagement by those born into societal economic affluence and too many elections.

The researchers at the University of Essex and University of Montreal argue this has serious consequences for policymaking while encouraging economic inequality and bad governance.

They suggest the trend can be mitigated through institutional reforms and, at least temporarily, upset if voters can be persuaded to “feel the urgency and relate emotionally to the issues”

“Politicians dogged by voter discontent.” “Apathy growing in many voters.” “Voter turnout a vexing problem.” These are just some of the newspaper headlines showing how the decline in voter turnout has become a global concern in contemporary democracies.

In the late 1960s, more than 77 percent of citizens typically voted in national legislative and presidential elections, after 2010, the global average voting rate fell to below 67%.

The research team have completed the most extensive cross-national study of voter turnout to date, analysing data covering all post-1945 democratic national elections. They looked at elections in 116 democratic countries around the world and 20 countries which have maintained democratic elections since the 1940s. Significant declines were seen in both categories.

Their results indicate that many explanations for the phenomenon of voter decline such as income inequality, shifts in party policies, or voting age reform are not supported by the data. Growing levels of education have also not prompted increases in participation.

Their findings, published in the journal World Politics, show that as democracy has expanded across countries, electoral participation has declined.

“This is both problematic and puzzling,” said Dr Filip Kostelka, from the Department of Government at Essex. “The level of electoral participation matters for the quality of the democratic process. The existing literature shows that low voter turnout leads to socio-economically distorted voter turnout, biased public policies, lower government responsiveness, and fertile ground for clientelism and patronage.”

“The poorest are least likely to participate in the democratic process, and this is particularly true when overall participation is low,” explained Professor André Blais from the Department of Political Science at the University of Montréal. “Low and unequal turnout then leads to ever more excluded communities with politicians engaging with the groups they perceive to be their active supporters.”

“Fortunately, it is not necessarily as grim as it first appears,” said Dr Kostelka. “Turnout is still well over 50% in national elections and when the stakes are raised it seems that the electorate respond to the emotional cues of urgency around challenges such as controversial populist incumbents such as Donald Trump or big political questions like Brexit.

“Our results suggest that the global decline in voter turnout is associated with economic development and a change in citizen values that development brings about”; said Professor Blais “Perhaps, climate change and the questions it raises might mobilise voters and reverse the decreasing participatory trend in the future.”

“But, institutions matter too”; continued Dr Kostelka “Reducing the number of times citizens are invited to the ballot box by reorganising the election calendar may benefit participation. In my ongoing research, my co-authors and I aim to investigate the underlying causes for the relationship between the frequency of elections and electoral participation.”