FOTO CREDIT: Mohamed Hassan
Local elections differ in very profound ways from national elections: The electorate is rather small and homogenous and the elected body is considered to be closer to the people. To some extent, these differences should translate into variations in participation with voters being easily able to make informed choices at the local level. Research analyzing participation in the local or national elections or the gaps between these two stress the importance of individual-level factors, or macro-level socio-economic, political and institutional variables (for an overview see Geys 2006 and Stockemer 2017). The peculiarities of municipal elections, makes them a very interesting setting to investigate variations in turnout across and within countries as well as over time. Hence, in this blog post, I ask the question whether the aggregate-level factors described by previous studies can also explain differences in the share of constituents turning out to four local elections in the Austrian State of Salzburg between 2004 and 2019.
In the State of Salzburg, local elections are characterized by an extremely high average level of turnout with, for instance, 63 percent in 2019. Data from elections in 472 municipalities between 2004 and 2019 indicates that the share of eligible voters casting a ballot varies strongly between districts and across time. In 2004, almost 95 percent of the 540 constituents casted a vote in the rural village of Forstau, but only 64 percent of the 250 000 inhabitants in the region’s capital, the city of Salzburg. To explore whether the share of immigrants, the closeness of the race, the number of parties running for office, the size of assemblies account for these variations in turnout rates across in the region, I use multiple linear regressions with standard errors clustered at the municipality level.
A first factor that affects the level of turnout is the socio-economic context in which an election takes place. Model 1a (Table 1) shows that in areas in which a lower share of immigrants live, less voters decide to abstain. Social cohesion seems to increase group solidarity and ‘social pressure’ to turn out to an election. Instead, in municipalities with a more diverse set of citizens with regard to immigrant status, turnout rates are higher.
Moreover, the closeness of the election is decisive for the share of the population casting a vote. The narrower the gap is between the two most successful parties, the closer the election and the higher the probability that one vote influences the outcome. In turn, the expected utility of voting and thereby turnout increases. This pattern can also be observed in the local elections in the state of Salzburg.
Tab. 1: Multiple regression models predicting turnout in local elections.
A higher number of parties competing in an election has a negative effect on turnout rates in the case of local elections in the state of Salzburg. More parties go hand in hand with a higher complexity of the political system and increase the information costs for the electorate. In turn, for voters, it is more difficult to make up their mind and reduces their likelihood of heading to the polls.
In addition to the electoral party system size, another institutional factor provides an explanation for turnout at the local level: Larger assemblies can be associated with more proportional systems in which smaller parties and independent candidates have a more realistic chance to win a seat. According to this rationale, in districts with larger parliaments, turnout should be higher. However, in the case of the State of Salzburg, the negative sign of the coefficient in Model 1a indicates an opposite effect. In fact, participation is lower in municipalities with larger assemblies that allow for a more accurate translation of votes into seats. Model 1b reports the beta coefficients and demonstrates that this unanticipated negative effect of assembly size is the strongest among the variables considered. A one standard deviation increase in assembly size leads to a 0.51 standard deviation decrease in predicted turnout. In comparison to this, the effect of the number of electoral parties is very low with a beta coefficient of 0.13. To further investigate this unexpected finding, Model 2 includes an interaction term between closeness of race and assembly size, as constituents might be less able to evaluate the probability that their vote makes a difference in close races once assembly size increases. Graph 1 visualizes the predicted probability of turnout by closeness of race and assembly size. It shows that in very competitive elections and a narrow gap between the leading parties, abstention rates are low irrespective of the size of the assembly. However, in an average local parliament of 18 seats turnout reaches between 82 – 85 percent once the distance between the first and second winner is lower than 8 percent but decreases steadily as the election becomes less competitive. This finding suggests that as assembly size increases the negative effect of closeness of race on turnout and becomes more pronounced. Moreover, in this more specified Model 2, the effect of assembly size remains negative. Voters have more difficulties to gather relevant information and to understand whether their vote brings along any change once assembly size is high and in turn are more likely to abstain.
Graph 1: Predicted probability of turnout by closeness of race and assembly size
This way, they can spark more interest in politics at all levels of government.
In a nutshell, even in the least likely case of the State Salzburg, which profits from relatively high turnout, aggregate-level explanations play an important role for abstention rates. Most importantly, assembly size and closeness of the race determine whether citizens have the motivation to cast a ballot. This suggests that, even in local elections with homogenous and small electorates that make it comparably easy to assess other voters’ preferences, small nuances in the level of information and the consequent impact of one’s vote explain turnout. To foster turnout, political parties should thus invest in intensive campaigning, voter outreach campaigns and high-quality media coverage of local races to inform citizens about how their vote can make a difference and thus why it is important to cast a ballot. This way, they can spark more interest in politics at all levels of government.
By Sarah C. Dingler in April 2019
 All data provided by provided by the Landesstatistik Salzburg (2019)
Geys, B. (2006). Explaining voter turnout: A review of aggregate-level research. Electoral Studies 25(4), 637-663.
Landestatistik Salzburg (2019). Download zu den Gemeindevertretungswahlen. Available at https://www.salzburg.gv.at/stat/wahlen/gvw/index.html#dl.
Stockemer, D. (2017). What Affects Voter Turnout? A Review Article/Meta-Analysis of Aggregate Research. Government and Opposition, 52(4), 698-722.