US Presidential elections are indirect: the people vote for an electoral college and the electoral college votes for the President. States assign electors in a winner-takes-all manner (either state-wide or per district), which leads to the campaign being focused on swing states. In United Kingdom parliamentary elections, each constituency elects one MP in a first-past-the-post system. Many constituencies are virtually certain to remain with a particular party (safe seats).

In both cases, I could imagine that someone living in a safe state or safe seat may be less motivated to vote, than someone living in a swing state or marginal seat. Is there any evidence that turnout is higher in swing states than in safe states, and/or higher in marginal seats than in safe seats?

  • 5
    +1, if only because researching this allowed me to find this gem: "In an uncompetitive region of an uncompetitive state, a shark attack evidently caused some citizens to vote against the incumbent President in 1916 (Achen and Bartels, 2004)"
    – user4012
    Nov 17, 2016 at 15:27
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    Also: "A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls." – U.S. Vice President J. Danforth Quayle
    – user4012
    Nov 17, 2016 at 18:09
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    Oh *&(&*(! I give up for now. It's like studying Talmud. Rabbi X said A. Rabbi Y said B. Every study seems to contradict each other.
    – user4012
    Nov 17, 2016 at 18:59
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    @user4012 your first comment mentions a shark attack. Your second comment mentions rabbis. Do you know if zionists were behind the shark attack?
    – Golden Cuy
    Jan 12, 2018 at 7:24

1 Answer 1


Seems like every study disagrees. Some support higher turnout hypothesis, some don't.

  • http://rangevoting.org/StudiesTurnout.html has this:

    Competiveness and the feeling (justified by recent history) that your side has a decent chance to win, increase turnout; this fact is supported by all 7 of the following studies: (note: some of these pertain to FPTP elections but possibly not all). Caveat: I personally didn't check the validity of RangeVoting's conclusion that all 7 studies support this.

    • G.Pillsbury, J.Johannesen, J.Arp: America Goes to the Polls A report of voter turnout in the 2006 election, www.nonprofitvote.org. (On page 9: the "non-competitive" states had 37% turnout and the ones with "competitive" governor and/or senate races had 45%.)
    • Vanderleeuw JM, Liu BD: Political empowerment, mobilization, and black voter roll-off, URBAN AFFAIRS REVIEW 37,3 (Jan 2002) 380-396
    • Endersby JW, Galatas SE, Rackaway CB: Closeness counts in Canada: Voter participation in the 1993 and 1997 federal elections, JOURNAL OF POLITICS 64,2 (May 2002) 610-631
    • Nicholson SP, Miller RA: Prior beliefs and voter turnout in the 1986 and 1988 congressional elections, POLITICAL RESEARCH QUARTERLY 50,1 (Mar 1997) 199-213
    • SE Galatas: Electing the first parliament – Party competition and voter participation in Scotland, PARTY POLITICS 10,2 (Mar 2004) 213-233
    • Christine Fauvelle-Aymar & Abel Francois: The impact of closeness on turnout: An empirical relation based on a study of a two-round ballot, PUBLIC CHOICE 127, 3-4 (Jun 2006) 469-491 Abstract: Several methodological difficulties emerge from the empirical evaluation of the impact of closeness on turnout. The most critical resides in the use of the actual electoral results to assess the impact of closeness. Important doubt therefore remains with respect to the empirical validity of the relationship between turnout and closeness. This article intends to explore this ambiguity by an econometric analysis of the two-round French legislative elections. The first ballot gives excellent information to the voters on the expected closeness of the upcoming second ballot. The results show that closeness, whatever its measure, has an important and meaningful impact on electoral participation.
  • However, there are studies (including reviews) supporting opposite view:

    "Voting Costs and Voter Turnout in Competitive Elections", Bernard Fraga and Eitan Hersh, Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2010, 5: 339–356

    Some evidence also points to voters themselves being quite different in competitive environments than uncompetitive ones. Voters in closely contested elections accumulate more information about the candidates and the race (Gimpelet al., 2007; Hill and McKee, 2005)

    Whether voters in competitive environments act in similar ways to voters in uncompetitive ones is, however, a wide open question. Apart from the “minimal effects” presumption of yore that campaigns do not have meaningful influences (for a review, see Brady et al., 2006), more recent work by Holbrook and McClurg (2005) and Gerber et al. (2009) suggests that competition and state-level disparities in campaign attention have very limited impact on voter turnout.

  • "Voter turnout and district-level competitiveness in mixed-member electoral systems", Maeda, Ko, 2016

    It has been suggested that one of the reasons why majoritarian electoral systems are associated with lower voter turnout in comparison to proportional electoral systems is that citizens in uncompetitive districts ("safe seats") are not motivated to vote. ... I argue that, due to this difference, the impact of district-level competitiveness on turnout is stronger in mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) than in Mixed-member proportional (MMP). An analysis of district-level electoral data from four countries confirms this hypothesis.

  • To be added: "A Comparative Cross-National Study of Voter Turnout and Electoral Systems, 1972-2005". Which muddles the water even more. sigh
    – user4012
    Nov 17, 2016 at 19:10
  • Out of your list, at least the Scottish Parliament does not use FPTP but AMS (see Electoral system of Scotland), but maybe that was different when the study was undertaken.
    – gerrit
    Nov 17, 2016 at 19:35

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