Electoral Choice and Competition: Effects on Turnout and Implications for Attitudes

Sept. 17, 2011, 5:41 p.m.

Aina Gallego of Stanford University and Saul Cunow of UCSD both looked at what impact various electoral variables have on voter turnout. Aina argued that increases in ballot complexity, while not impacting educated voters, have a negative effect on turnout rates of less educated citizens.  Aina used two strategies to test her hypothesis.  For the first, she conducted a field experiment where she sent several fake ballot questions to a random group of Spanish citizens.  The control group was given a straightforward ballot containing descriptions of candidates and which party they belonged to, and then asked to vote for one.  The second group was given the same list, but was asked to vote for up to five.  The second group had a 12 percent drop in responses from low-educated citizens.
For her second strategy, she ran a cross-national regression of electoral system design by turnout among various demographics and found that controlling for other factors, increased preference votes were associated with a decrease in turnout.

Related, Saul Cunow conducted a field experiment in Brazil and found that there is a curvilinear relationship between the number of candidates on a ballot and turnout.  That is, at low levels of candidate choice, turnout is low as voters feel they have little options.  As the number of choices increases, turnout increases, due to the more choices.  After the number of potential candidates increases past a certain level, however, turnout decreases as people are confused by the number of choices and have a harder time distinguishing between them.  Saul also finds that the presence of party labels does not reduce the probability of abstention among higher numbers of candidates.

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