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I'm aware of a number of surveys in the UK and the US based around voter apathy that have shown that one of the most common reasons stated for not voting is the lack of a political party that represents one's views.

A Survation poll which surveyed non-voters in the 2010 UK General Election found (table 29) that 16.6% of voters said that one of their main reasons for not voting in the last election was that "What I believe in isn't represented by the parties/candidates", while a US Pew Research Center poll found that "Dislike of candidates or campaign issues was the most common reason for not voting in 2016", at 25%.

Both the UK and the US have a small number of 'viable' political parties compared to some other countries, mostly as a result of their FPTP systems. Do countries with a larger number of political parties exhibit an increased level of voter participation as a result of having more choice at the polling booth?

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As "layman's summary":

  • A proportional representation system, which correlates with an increase effective (in the sense of realistically electable) number of parties, correlates with increased turnout.

  • The raw number of parties correlates with increased turnout when the parties are sufficiently distinct from each other, e.g. as measured by party (platform) polarization.


The answer seems to be yes, but note that it's difficult to eliminate all potential confounders in cross-country research. A fairly cited 1990 paper:

This paper examines the record of western democracies to measure the impact of differing electoral formulae on the rate of voter turnout. The record of 509 national elections in 20 countries provides the basis for a regression analysis that clearly identifies higher turnout rates in PR systems that cannot be explained by a wide variety of control variables or traditional arguments about PR. The data also reveal a marked increase in electoral turnout over the last century.

Also, the precise measure used e.g. PR system [which is a binary (institutional) variable) vs. raw number of parties also seems to matter. (The effect is reportedly weaker of even contrary for the latter in some publications.) More recent research has looked at how polarization interacts with the number of parties in affecting turnout (for OECD countries):

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Note that without the [parties x polarization] interaction term, number of parties is insignificant in this [1.1] model, highlighting the poor explanatory power of this variable without the interaction and being broadly in line with the literature. The controls in Model 1.1 also behave as expected. The size of the population is significant and negatively associated with turnout, while institutional indicators including proportional representation, compulsory voting, and unicameralism are all significant and positively associated with turnout. [...]

Model 1.3 includes the interaction term between polarization and number of parties. The interaction is significant and negatively associated with turnout, polarization remains significant and positively associated with turnout, and number of parties becomes significant and changes direction to be positively associated with turnout. [...] polarization has a positive effect upon turnout when there are few parties. This positive effect declines as the number of parties increases. When there are more than four parties, polarization no longer has an impact upon turnout. [...]

it is easy to imagine how the number of parties would have little effect upon turnout when polarization levels are low. Systems with low levels of polarization are unlikely to result in high voter turnout. The number of parties in such a system simply makes little difference as, ultimately, there is little to choose between the parties as they all inhabit a narrow ideological spectrum. The number of parties only begins to have an effect upon turnout when polarization levels are high as this can meaningfully affect the composition of government.

If you wonder on the technical details of how the latter paper measured polarization:

For the purpose of this article, an approach similar to Jansen, Evans, and Dirk de Graaf (2012) will be utilized. The above authors’ measure of polarization was largely based on the standard deviation of party ideology scores [taken from the Comparative Manifesto Project (CMP)]. This article differs from the above in that the standard deviation will be weighted by party size in a similar fashion to Kim, Powell, and Fording (2010). [...] the use of manifesto data was chosen as it allows for comparison over a prolonged period of time and is known to generate the smallest errors when predicting party ideology placements (Gable and Huber, 2000).

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    Is there a version of this that regular people can understand? – DJ Spicy Deluxe May 11 at 20:46
  • @DJSpicyDeluxe: I've added a "layman's summary". – Fizz May 11 at 21:37

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