Increasing Voter Turnout in European Elections

Abstract

Low and decreasing voter turnout is an increasing political and psychological problem across Europe and beyond. The consequences are power-inequality, a diminution of governmental legitimacy and a rise in populist, anti-democratic parties that divide voters and countries and threaten the democratic system. Research indicates that perceived social norms and personal involvement significantly contribute to the extent that voters do or do not vote. A process model is presented that details the impact of personal- and social factors on voting behaviour and the effectiveness of targeting respective variables for possible intervention is discussed. Two interventions are proposed. 1. A voting-advertisement on social media sites providing positive pro-voting descriptive norms from a close peer and increasing personal involvement. 2. An adaptation of the “I voted”-stickers in US elections to an antecedent “I will vote”-sticker that increases personal involvement, public commitment and descriptive social norms. A pre-test and evaluation plan are discussed and detailed.

Keywords: Voter turnout, turnout, voting, elections, social norms, descriptive norms, personal involvement, feedback, responsibility, youth, Europe

 

Increasing Voter Turnout in European Elections

T

hose who must live with result of the EU Referendum the longest want to remain”, David Beard (Washington Post) wrote one day after Great Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Demographics show that 71% of the 18-24 years old voted Remain (Moore, 2016). But polls also show that while voter turnout among those aged 65+ was beyond 90%, only 64% of the young actually voted (Yeung, 2016). This is not a coincidence. The Eurobarometer (Statista, 2014) found that turnout among the European youth is low in several countries such as Germany (53%) and Sweden (49%), and even lower in Hungary (39%) and the UK (38%). Yet, the issue transcends nations and demographics. Data indicates that the controversial 2016 US election was decided, again, not by those who voted but those who did not: Voter turnout among Democrats was significantly lower compared to the election of 2012, resulting in the Democratic Party losing several states that had been predicted to be a safe bet (Ben-Shahar, 2016).

Every vote does count, and has a fundamental impact on the path we take as a society for many years to come. Yet, many nations worldwide show continuously decreasing voter participation (Lijphart, 2011), with the United States, Poland, Japan and others around 50% turnout and Switzerland trumping the statistics with a total of only 39% participation in the 2015 federal election (Denters, 1995, Desilver, 2016). In Europe, this issue is signified by the elections to the European Parliament, which have continuously decreased in turnout from 61,99% in 1979 to an all-time low of 42.61% in 2014 (European Parliament, 2016). And even countries with high turnout rates show a downwards-trend, with federal elections in Germany dropping from 91.1% in 1972 to 71.5% in 2013 (Statista, 2016).

Why is it a problem?

The fundamental concept of a democracy is the participation of the people. The less people participate, the weaker is the democracy as a whole and its perceived legitimacy. The rise in anti-European, nationalist movements is in part explained by its supporters questioning the legitimacy of the European Parliament (Treib, 2014), which was elected by less than half of the European elective population in 2014. Furthermore, research indicates that voter turnout is not equally low across demographics, but especially common among populations with low income, low education and/or disabilities (Lijphart, 2011, Davenport, 2010, Rosenstone, 1982). This, combined with a low turnout among the youth (Statista, 2014), equates the very power imbalance a democracy is intended to counteract, as the privileged are not just more likely, but also abler to vote (Davenport, 2010). As the perceived legitimacy of the democratic system erodes and frustration increases, this gives rise to populist anti-democratic parties (Hooghe & Reeskens, 2007) that spark further conflict and divide nations. As the weight of each vote increases by the amount of votes that are not cast, low turnouts additionally empower these extremist parties.

For whom is it a problem?

Decrease in voter turnout is therefore a problem for everyone. For parties that are competing for votes, for voters that believe in the democratic system, for non-voters that are kept from voting due to circumstances (e.g. mobility), as well as for non-voters by choice, as their refusal to vote is likely a symptom of a much greater issue. As the recent political shift in Turkey signifies, democracy can wither very quickly if it is not lived by the people.

What are possible causes of the problem?

Several aspects contribute to a decrease in voter turnout: A distrust in the political system (Simpser, 2012), negative political campaigns (Krupnikov, 2010), unattractive parties and candidates (Adams & Merrill, 2003), political knowledge (Popan & Hinojosa, 2016) and values (Limber & Kaufman, 2002), perceived social norms (Pacheco, 2008), perceived responsibility (Haenschen, 2016) and personal involvement (Parry, Smith, Henry, 2012), as well as low income (Davenport, 2010), disability and mobility (Schur & Kruse, 2000), and the general (in)convenience and (in)accessibility of voting opportunities (Stein, Vonnahme, 2008). Many of the problems have a social-psychological base.

What is the target group?

Non-voters can be distinguished into two groups, namely those who do not vote due to circumstances (e.g. financial situation or mobility; Davenport, 2010, Schur & Kruse, 2000), and those who do not vote deliberately (Hastings, 1956). For the given intervention, we will focus on deliberate non-voters, particularly the European youth, as their behaviour is likely due to social-cognitive, motivational and/or affective causes.

What are the key aspects of the problem?

The problem at hand is an applied, concrete, social-psychological problem that requires practical interventions on a specific target group. Research indicates that interventions can be effective to some degree (Davenport, 2010). The key aspects are 1. non-voter perceived social-norms towards voting and the democratic system, 2. non-voter involvement and personal relevance of voting, as well as 3. actual non-voter voting behaviour on election day.

Outcome variable

The outcome variable for the given problem is increasing voting behaviour.

Explanations
O

ur outcome variable is increased voter turnout in European voters, particularly among young voters. As voting behaviour is binary (vote vs. not vote), the outcome variable will be quantified as the percentage of voters who participate in the European election. Though explanations and interventions appear to be generalizable across countries, the current paper will focus on elections for the European parliament as a starting point. As voter turnout is the issue and an increase in it the solution, the outcome variable is both relevant and specific and directly related to the task at hand.

Several explanations for low voter-turnout were found and are described hereafter. Insight into how the respective explanations were generated is given in Appendix A. In total, 8 variables were found to explain low voter turnout, and were subsequently reduced to a total of 5 variables, based on their relevance and validity. Appendix B discusses each excluded variable and Appendix C explains the reduction of the explanations. The retained variables are: Personal involvement, Perceived Social Norms, Perceived Responsibility, Political Values and Political Knowledge.

  1. Personal Involvement. Research highlights the importance of personal involvement in politics and the relevance of politics for voting behaviour (Parry, Smith, Henry, 2012) and as such, low involvement as a detrimental factor for voter turnout. Particularly, non-voters are oftentimes only faintly exposed to political issues and information (Hastings, 1956) and have no firm attitudes towards politics or interest in political participation. Research on non-voters indicates that the fraction of non-voters who actively oppose the state or democratic system and abstain from elections as protest is comparatively small, but a simple low involvement in politics is one of the strongest causes of not voting (Neu, 2012) especially for young voters, who exhibit a continuously shrinking involvement (Limber & Kaufman, 2002). As the subject of politics is considered personally irrelevant and attitudes towards politics are vague, the likelihood to vote decreases, especially when it appears that the required action can also be executed by someone else. As such, personal involvement is in part explained by perceived responsibility:
  2. Perceived Responsibility. Secret voting is a fundamental aspect of democratic elections, but it also means no negative consequences for not voting. Just as public commitment increases turnout (Haenschen, 2016), it is likely that the opposite holds true: Non-voters do not have to rectify their choice, which facilitates their absence at the polls. This issue is illustrated by countries that have abandoned their compulsory voting system and as a result experienced significant decreases in voter turnout (Denters, 1995). This can in part be explained by a diffusion of responsibility, as potential voters assume that others are equally able and likely to perform the required action (Barron & Yechiam, 2002) and thus it does not seem necessary to already inhibited individuals to vote themselves. No research thus far has focused solely on young voters in investigating perceived responsibility to vote. Yet, the low voter-turnout among young Europeans (Statista, 2014), combined with a disengagement from politics and civic life as a whole (Limber & Kaufman, 2002) indicates that the feeling of responsibility is decreasing amongst the youth.
  3. Political Values. Studies find several political values to predict voting: Support for free enterprise, military interventions, civil liberties and traditional morality predict centre-right voting, equality values and openness to immigration predict centre-left voting (Schwartz, Caprara, Vecchione, 2010). It is likely that if neither of these values is pronounced in an individual, then neither will voting be relevant and participants will stay away from polls. There is a trend, especially for young voters, towards a growing cynicism towards politics (Dermody, Hanmer-Lloyd, Scullion, 2010), suggesting a detachment from politics as proposed by previous research (Hastings, 1956), and indicating a decrease in importance of the abovementioned values amongst the youth.
  4. Political Knowledge. Research also widely agrees that education is an important factor in political participation (Condon, 2015, Popan, & Hinojosa, 2016) and directly affects voting behaviour (Popan, & Hinojosa, 2016). Research shows that education levels impact the perceived confidence of potential voters in successfully participation in political discussions, choosing a party that best represents individual concerns and needs, and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles such as registering for voting participation (Condon et al., 2016). Findings suggest that, at least in parts of Europe, especially the youth exhibits deficits in such political knowledge (Kercher, 2008).
  5. Perceived Social Norms. Both family and politically competitive social environments have a long-term impact on voting behaviour (Pacheco, 2008), and so does being a part of communities such as churches or political organisations (Turner, Shields, Sharp, 2001, Neu, 2012). The social environment tremendously affects individual behaviour (Cialdini, Kallgren, Reno, 1990), and negative perceived social norms towards voting and politics could significantly reduce voter turnout. A variety of theories endeavour to explain this influence, such as the theory of normative conduct (Cialdini, Kallgren, Reno, 1991). The theory differentiates social norms into injunctive and descriptive norms, the former describing the way things should be, the latter the way they actually are. For the issue at hand, the descriptive norms of a social environment that does not vote indicates to the individual within that voting is neither relevant nor desirable. For instance, reports on low turnout in elections, such as the 42.61% in the 2014 European Election, may provide individuals with the descriptive norm that voting is commonly disregarded or irrelevant. In more extreme cases, peers and family could even display active dissent for the political system, creating an injunctive norm of staying absent at elections that are rejected by peers. Social norms depend on the referent of influence. Closest friends and most valued persons have the highest norm influence, whereas more distant referents have less impact (Collins & Spelman, 2013). Research indicates a growing cynicism towards politics amongst the youth (Dermody et al., 2010), which can lead to political alienation. As peers are especially important to young voters (Collins & Spelman, 2013), this cynicism amongst peers could create descriptive or injunctive norms that reduce voting.
Process model

A

process model of the various influences on voting behaviour was created based on existing research. The key aspects in explaining voting behaviour are Perceived Social Norms and Personal Involvement (Figure 1). Perceived social norms include both descriptive and injunctive norms (Cialdini et al., 1991) and are very effective in explaining and predicting voting behaviour. Personal Involvement is described by how relevant voting is to the individual, based on their political values, interests and needs (Zaichkowsky, 1985). It strongly predicts behaviour (Parry et al., 2012). While social norms come from the external, social environment, Personal Involvement is an internal variable and the result of multiple intrapersonal factors: It is positively predicted by political values and perceived responsibility to vote, which in turn is determined by political values and political knowledge. The association between responsibility and involvement is moderate (Bowen, Jensen, Martin, Mancini, 2016), whereas associations between political values and involvement are rather small but persistent (Kikas, Tulviste, Peets, 2014, Cheung & Pomerantz, 2015). Political values have a medium predictive effect on responsibility (Shafer, Fukukawa, Lee, 2007) and a medium association between knowledge and equality-universalism (Farragher, Wang, Worsley, 2016), which is a key aspect of political values (Schwartz, Caprara, Vecchione, 2010). Lastly, knowledge and responsibility have only a very weak correlation (Milfont, 2012). This suggests that it is not political knowledge that drives perceived responsibility to vote, but more the political values of an individual. A direct correlation between political knowledge and voting turnout does exist (Popan, & Hinojosa, 2016), but this correlation is rather low.

A variety of instruments are available to measure the different relationships described in the process model and are discussed in detail in Appendix D.

Intervention

A balance table was created to indicate the modifiability and effect size of each variable in the process model (see Table 1, above).

Perceived Social Norms appear to be the most predictive and thus strongest variable in our model: 30% of the variance in voting behaviour is explained by social norms (Collins & Spelman, 2013), which constitutes a large effect. The strength of social norms is determined by the amount of people conforming to it (Gazzaniga & Heatherton, 2006), and modifying a widely accepted norm is thus difficult. We can, however, change the perception of social norms and of how many people conform to it. Research (Keizer, Lindenberg, Steg, 2008) finds the effect of norms to depend on their salience on the individual’s mind. As non-voters typically are little involved in politics (Hastings, 1956), perceived social norms are rather vague and not very salient, and are thus easier to modify by making pro-voting norms more salient and describing them as being supported by a large population. Simply highlighting a descriptive norm, that a majority endorses voting, may thus increase voting behaviour (Goldstein, Cialdini, Griskevicius, 2008). Though non-voters, who actively oppose voting, likely have strong anti-voting-norms that render this modification-approach ineffective, these determined non-voters constitute only a negligible minority among the total non-voters (Neu, 2012). As such, perceived social norms are still a feasible tool of medium modifiability to increase voting in a large part of our target group.

Personal Involvement explains 28% of the variance in voting (Sarabia-Sánchez et al., 2014), and is thus the second strongest predictor. Advertisements and public campaigns were found to increase personal involvement, but it is possible that interventions will be processed superficially, and as such, will also modify involvement only superficially (Cacioppo, Petty, Kao, Rodriguez, 1986). There is thus, again, medium potential for modification.

Perceived Responsibility has a close to medium predictive effect on voting of 8% explained variance, but given the correlation with personal involvement, there is overlap with the amount of variance already explained by personal involvement, which makes perceived responsibility explain less of voting on its own. Perceived responsibility has a medium modifiability, as too much emphasis on personal duty might be interpreted as pressure to conform and lead to psychological reactance, in which voters strengthen their decision not to vote in the face of pressure to vote (Mann, 2010).

The effect of Political Values on voting behaviour is mediated by personal involvement, and as such explain only 2% of the variance in voting behaviour, as well as by the effect of perceived responsibility on personal involvement on voting, which accounts for only roughly 1% of variance in voting. It is possible that this effect is stronger in practice, or that a direct effect without mediators would be stronger, but research on the effect on voting thus far is limited or splits political values into various subcategories (Schwartz et al. 2010), making a generalised prediction difficult. For now, we can only conclude on a small effect size. In addition, values are stable and deeply-rooted and thus very difficult to change (Gazzaniga & Heatherton, 2006).

Lastly, Political knowledge has a direct but small effect on voting behaviour, explaining 5% of its variance, and indirectly affects voting through perceived responsibility and personal involvement, explaining less than 1% of the variance on voting behaviour. It may be the easiest variable to modify, but research shows that the effect is small (Milfont, 2012, Popan, & Hinojosa, 2016). Simply learning about the merits of democracy will therefore be unlikely to affect voter turnout. As Personal Involvement and Perceived Social Norms, by far, surpass the remaining variables, we should utilise these two for designing interventions. However, aspects of the other variables may be integrated to enhance the effect of these two variables. One possible interventions  will be described hereafter.

Intervention 1

Channel: Stickers. Method: Social desirability, foot in the door technique, public commitment, self-perception, social norms, cognitive dissonance. Target group: Young non-voter and voter passer-by. Variables to change: Perceived Social Norms, Personal Involvement.

V

oter turnout can either be increased by increasing personal involvement, or by making social norms salient that encourage voting: Data shows that survey turnouts are consistently higher than actual election turnouts (Belli, Traugott, Young, McGonagle, 1999, Holbrook & Krosnick, 2010) and that this is likely due to social desirability, as injunctive norms support voting and respondents feel too embarrassed to admit their intention not to vote. Research indicates that social concerns may even lead to active voting (DellaVigna, List, Malmendier, Rao, 2016), as the costs of admitting to not voting outweigh the costs of voting. Furthermore, public commitment has been shown to significantly increase voter turnout (Haenschen, 2016). Combining these findings, it is thus not necessary to deeply change personal involvement or perceived social norms, but to simply increase involvement and social concerns to pass the threshold at which voting becomes less bothersome than not voting. One possible intervention in this regard is to adapt the “I voted” stickers that are wide-spread in US-elections. With a price of about 7€ per 1000 stickers (Nelson, 2016), the stickers are a highly cost effective, simple channel of communication that is minimalistic in information content but highly salient and can easily reach a wide audience.

We base the intervention on the following methods: The current stickers are already likely to impact potential voters (DellaVigna et al., 2016), but only through active voters who wear the stickers and function as social influence by depicting a pro-voting social norm. Changing the stickers from an “I voted” to an “I will vote” message enables us to directly target non-voters prior to election day and elicit a commitment to vote. This again depicts a descriptive norm of voting to everyone seeing people with the stickers, but it also impacts the wearer themselves. Figure 3 (See Appendix G) depicts one possible design for the given intervention. Naturally, stickers have to be translated in different languages, depending on the place of voting. “I will vote” stickers can be distributed by volunteers in public places shortly prior to an election. Individuals will be asked whether they intend to vote in the upcoming election, and due to their reluctance to deny (DellaVigna et al., 2016), will likely say yes. As they have committed to voting, we set a foot in their door (Freedman & Fraser, 1966) and increase their likelihood to agree to our subsequent request: We next ask them to wear a sticker to display their articulated commitment. Upon their agreement, we attach the stickers to their jackets, coats or cars. Wearing the sticker increases personal involvement, and makes their commitment to vote public, which has been shown to significantly increase voting behaviour (Haenschen, 2016). The displayed commitment to vote also triggers self-perception theory (Bem, 1967), which asserts that people derive their attitudes from their behaviour. As the individual acts political – by wearing the sticker – they derive that the election must be important to them. This strengthens involvement, commitment to vote, and interest in the subject.

Research suggests that signing petitions or phrasing political issues in personal rather than abstract terms (e.g. “being a voter” versus general “voting”) increases voter turnout. The statement “I will vote” is both personal and resembles the commitment of a petition and thus further reinforces involvement (Parry et al., 2012, Bryan, Walton, Rogers, Dweck, 2011). As involvement grows stronger, the thought of not voting or taking off the sticker becomes more likely to cause a cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1962), in which not voting conflicts with the perceived importance of voting and commitment to vote. Combined, the social embarrassment of not voting, the public commitment and the increased personal involvement, interest and perceived relevance are likely to pass the voting-threshold, and voting becomes easier than not voting. As involvement increases, subjects become more open to political issues and increase their participation in the political process.

Lastly, as studies find voting plans (Nickerson & Rogers, 2010) and agenda settings (Kiousis & McDevitt, 2008) to significantly impact voter turnout, the sticker contains clear information and instructions on when and how to vote, facilitating implementing the action on election day, as well as a website to engage wearers in the political process. This intervention will inevitably also target passer-by that already intend to vote. Given the low price of the sticker, this is not an issue. Non-voters will be affected as described above. Decided voters will be strengthened in their decision, and help promote the pro-voting descriptive norm among non-voting peers.

Implementation
F

or the current intervention, we aim to increase voter turnout in young European non-voters in European elections. We will focus on the channel of “I will vote”-stickers, which can be translated and adjusted to both local and European elections. The stickers can be produced at very low costs and distributed by volunteers to effectively reach a wide audience of both voters and non-voters. The former group takes up the role of displaying social norms by strengthen descriptive norms of voting, whereas the latter, our primary target group, functions in the same regard but also is personally influenced by the stickers by increased personal involvement, identification with the subject and subtle social nudges towards committing to vote. Consequently, we predict a significant increase in voter turnout.

Prior to implementing the intervention, a pre-test should investigate whether the stickers are perceived as intended, that is, whether the stickers are noticed, are easily readable, and whether the instructions are sufficiently clear. For the latter, an online survey would be feasible that tests the message and instructions both with quantitative assessment and interviews: A Likert-scale could be used to rate the clarity of instructions and the appeal of the message, whereas open question boxes could ask participants to provide remarks and criticism to particular aspects of the sticker such as information, design, and message. To test whether the stickers are noticeable and readable, a small laboratory study could determine the optimal size of the stickers by placing participants in different distances to the person wearing the sticker. It is likely that the exact voting instructions that surround the sticker (see Figure 2 in Appendix G) are only readable from close distance, but it is essential that the key message (“I will vote”) can be seen and recognized from afar.

Following a pre-test, relevant actors and policies need to be considered with respect to implementing the intervention. First, depending on the countries in which the intervention takes place, laws may require that the intervention is registered with a governmental agency in order to be implemented in a public place. Second, financial and personnel support need to be secured. In many countries, NGOs, labour unions, TV broadcasters and the state itself support campaigns to increase voter turnout and as such may be willing to contribute to the intervention. In Germany, public relations work such as the endeavour to increase voter turnout is an explicit part of governmental responsibility, as determined by the Federal Constitution Court (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2016). It is thus likely to receive adequate support for the given intervention. Next, logistics need to be discussed with regards to printing and distributing the stickers. Ultimately, the intervention depends on volunteers who distribute the stickers among the public. As the intervention is a means to target non-voters, it is likely that political parties will be interested in tapping into this possible new source of votes for their party and will thus be willing to participate. Additionally, unions and NGOs have a history of promoting voting and could also be inclined to provide volunteers.

As voter turnout varies each year, elections occur only every few years, and our intervention highly depends on taking place in a realistic setting to avoid possible social desirability biases and other confounds, it is neither possible to test the intervention in a laboratory setting, nor to follow participants throughout an election without exerting influence on them. We can, however, approximate the effectiveness by conducting an indirect effect evaluation on a smaller, more controllable setting, and generalising from the results. One possibility would be investigating elections on a local level, such as election for city council. Cities typically are divided into multiple voting districts and as such, voting districts can be randomly assigned to either receive a sticker-intervention (treatment group) or no intervention (control group). It is likely that we will experience considerable spill-over effects for districts such as the city centre that are frequented more by citizens from other districts. It thus might be beneficial to exclude such districts prior to assigning groups and focus on more remote districts.

First, the intervention must be introduced to municipal authorities, unions, etc. (dissemination phase). Second, officials, unions and other organisations must agree on participating in the intervention and discuss logistics (adoption phase). Next, volunteers will distribute stickers across treatment-districts as aforementioned, by asking passer-by whether they intend to vote and subsequently asking to attach the “I will vote”-commitment-sticker onto their jackets or coats (implementation phase). Following the election, we subtract the percentage voter turnout of the previous election from the current election’s turnout for each district and calculate the average of these differences for both the treatment and control districts. We can thus compare the increase (or decrease) in voter turnout between the districts that received the intervention and those that did not with a simple t-test.

The given effect evaluation can be applied to a variety of settings. If successful, the given intervention could be adopted by more cities and districts (continuation phase). Subsequent evaluation should investigate the overall effect, i.e. whether voter turnout significantly increased long-term or whether the intervention is effective across a variety of cities, states or countries, the process itself, i.e. whether volunteers asked passer-by about their voting intentions prior to handing them the sticker, and whether the stickers were attached clearly visible to subject’s jackets, coats, etc. Lastly, a cost-effectiveness evaluation should determine whether basing the intervention on volunteering is financially feasible and whether the reach per volunteer per hour is sufficient to justify the expenses.

 

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