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Why is Turnout Higher in Some Countries than in Others?


The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of certain institutional variables on voter turnout. This question has previously been explored by a number of authors. Powell (1982, 111-5) examined data from 29 democratic countries and confirmed the connection between compulsory voting and higher voter turnout. He stated that voluntary registration on lists of electors contributes to reduced turnout, and he minimized the impact of other factors, such as procedures for helping absentee electors to vote. Jackman's study (1987) covered 19 democratic countries and concluded that a proportional voting system, unicameralism, and compulsory voting were correlated with high turnout. Analyzing data from about 20 well-established democracies, Franklin (1996) maintained that compulsory voting, mail-in ballots, holding elections on holidays, and a proportional voting system helped to increase voter turnout.

These three studies were limited to so-called established democracies and all involved fewer than 30 countries. Believing it necessary to base generalizations on the largest possible number of cases and take the experiences of newly democratic countries into account, Blais and Dobrzynska (1998) examined voter turnout in 91 countries. They noted, in particular, the importance of compulsory voting and a proportional voting system, and the age at which people are entitled to vote (the turnout rate decreases as this age is reduced).

This study covered a total of 151 elections held in 61 "democratic" countries since 1990. A list of these countries is found in Appendix A. It consists of the 63 countries examined by Massicotte, Blais, and Yoshinaka (forthcoming) in their work on electoral legislation, ("the MBY study") minus two countries (Micronesia and Samoa) that had to be omitted because there was no information on turnout rates. The MBY study focused on countries with populations of over 100 000, to which Freedom House had given a score of 1 or 2 for political rights in 1996–97.1 The statistical universe, therefore, consisted of about 60 countries that are generally recognized as democracies, some long-established and others more recent.

The methodology was based on the one used by Blais and Dobrzynska (1998). It aims to explain why voter turnout is higher (or lower) in some cases than in others. First of all, the effects of socio-economic and geographic variables on voter turnout were measured. Then the impact of institutional variables was examined. To ensure that this impact was not artificial, the effects of socio-economic and geographic variables were taken into account and neutralized. Two types of institutional variables were distinguished: macro-institutional variables related to voting procedures and compulsory voting, and variables related to electoral administration. Further information about the institutional variables can be found in Appendix B.

1 Seventy-four countries met these two criteria. Two federations (Switzerland and the United States) had to be excluded because their electoral legislation varies from one state or canton to the next, and nine other countries could not be included because information was lacking.