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Franklin: Voter turnout and the dynamics of electoral competition in established democracies since 1945

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Franklin. 2004. Voter turnout and the dynamics of electoral competition in established democracies since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chapter 1: Confronting the Puzzles of Voter Turnout

The authors begin the book by stating that the question we should be asking is not why turnout is declining, but why is turnout so stable? This is interesting since apparently most of their book is spent on determining the factors that lead to declining turnout and ways to remedy it. Nonetheless, they state that "Turnout appears to be stable because, for most people, the habit of voting is established relatively early in their adult lives" (12), and "Only in the earliest elections at which individuals are eligible to vote would there by any real question as to whether they will vote or not" (13).

They are obsessed in this book with these new voters and on the one hand, they argue that new voters really are the key to turnout changes and turnout decline. They discuss socialization theory, which emphasizes the importance of early reference groups and the desire to conform. The basic point is that people get set in their ways early in life by the desire to conform, so that the older one gets, the harder it is to change one's behavior (21). They then cite research indicating that the magic number is three; anyone who votes the same way three times becomes essentially immune to the appeals of any other party.

They go on to state that if we want to understand the behavioral patterns of individual voters, we have to study the nature of the socialization processes that they underwent. They write that "most people have adopted a 'standing decision' to vote or not to vote, based on their early experiences of elections in their country. So turnout change depends on the behavior of new members of each electorate, and the things that determine turnout change will be the things that impinge on these new electoral cohorts" (22-23).

Comment and Criticism

However, I find Chapter 1 to be rambling, confusing and frustrating, especially in light of their purported conclusions in Chapters 5 and 8. For example, they do not really address how people come to adopt the standing decision whether to vote in the first place. In addition, they don't come out and state their main hypothesis (which I deduced from Chapters 5 and 8) that changes in the character of elections (such as the level of competitiveness) have a significant effect on turnout, and more importantly, they do not explain how this fits with their discussion of the socialization of new voters. Their secondary hypothesis apparently is that new voters are affected to a greater degree than repeat voters by these changes in the character of elections, but again, they do not introduce this in Chapter 1.

They also seem to mischaracterize the rational choice theory of voting. They seem to say that if competitiveness of an election affects turnout, this is inconsistent with the rational choice model because "according to rational choice theory, people should not take account of their vote's instrumental benefits." (28). Perhaps I do not understand their characterization, but I would argue that the competitiveness of an election goes directly to the p term.

Ultimately, Chapter 1 does not do a good job of setting forth their specific hypothesis and proposed tests. So, let's turn to some of their actual tests in Chapter 5.

Chapter 5: Explaining Turnout Change (Time-Series) in Twenty-Two Countries


22 countries who have a record of elections held continuously within one electoral cycle since the end of World War II. They use elections to the lower House of the national legislature in each country only.

They seek to distinguish between short-term factors (variables that have their effects mainly on new cohorts) and cumulative factors (variables that are amplified by being repeated cohort after cohort, eventually affecting the entire electorate).

Although they don't explicitly say that this is their primary hypothesis, they state that electoral competition is "the primary driving force determining turnout levels" (122).


H1: Electoral competitiveness. They expect significant effects from variables representing short-term factors such as:

  • Time since the previous election;
  • Weekend voting;
  • Majority status of the largest party;
  • Margin of victory of the largest party;
  • Mean margin of victory across the districts in majoritarian systems;
  • Polarization and cohesion of the party system;
  • Decisiveness of the election; and
  • Disproportionality of the electoral system.

H2: Generational replacement. They expect significant effects from variables representing cumulative factors such as:

  • Reduction of the voting age;
  • Removal of compulsory voting;
  • The introduction of absentee voting or its removal;
  • The loss of a cohesive party system;
  • Executive responsiveness;
  • Average district magnitude;
  • Sizes of electorates;
  • Introduction of female suffrage.

H3: They expect a significant effect of past turnout.

H4: They do not expect any features of the character of elections that can vary over time (other than past turnout) to prove significant except when operationalized as a short-term or cumulative factor.


They prefer Model E, so I will elaborate on their reported findings in that model:

  • The time since the previous election acted equally on all citizens regardless of whether they were members of established cohorts or new cohorts. This is evidence against H4.
  • More frequent elections result in slightly lower turnout. [Short-term factor].
  • In plurality elections, if the average margin of victory increases by 10 percent, turnout will drop by 5.7 percent. [Short-term factor]. (My comment: this suggests that the closer an election is, the higher the turnout. This is consistent with the basic assumptions of the rational choice model of voting. Their finding is also somewhat consistent with Blais's findings, although Blais found much less of an effect).
  • A country with compulsory voting will see turnout more than 11 percent higher than a country without compulsory voting. [Cumulative factor]. (This is consistent with Blais's findings).
  • A country with a cohesive party system will see turnout 7 percent higher than a country with a party system in which party discipline is poor. [They say that this is a short-term and a cumulative factor].
  • A country with an executive that is fully responsive to shifting majorities in the legislature will see turnout that is 16 percent higher than one in which the executive is totally unresponsive (which they say supports their argument that the separation of powers in the United States is one reason for that country's depressed turnout). [Cumulative].
  • Young initiation (by which I assume they mean voting age of 18) has an effect of depressing turnout by 3.8 percent. [Cumulative]. (This is generally consistent with Blais's findings).
  • They found an effect of 5 percent for female empowerment, which they say suggests that female turnout had risen this much on average by the time all women had enjoyed the opportunity to vote during their first three elections. [Cumulative].

Comment: Just for fun, let's apply their Model E to the United States in 2000:

  • Predicted Turnout = 51% + .63 + 0 + 0 + 7 + 0 + 0 + 5 - 8 - 3.8 + .4 = 52.23
  • Actual Turnout = 51.2%. They don't say what their error is for the regression line as a whole, but I assume 51.2 is within the error.

Comments and Criticism

Competition is key for them, because they state that in districts in which the race is a foregone conclusion, many potential voters will not see the point of voting and turnout will be lower (143). They also say that their model "unambiguously establishes the primacy of electoral competition in influencing turnout levels. Turnout change is not brought about by changes in the character of society or its members" (147). They also say that "uncertainty about the outcome renders the election highly competitive and turnout will be high" (147). Aren't these conclusions all consistent with the rational choice theory of voting, because don't they all go to the p term?

They claim in Chapter 8 that their results from Chapter 5 show that new voters will be influenced more than older voters by the competitiveness of the election. Do they really show this? Perhaps I just do not understand their methodology, but I don't see where they test this and draw this conclusion.

If they really wanted to test this, wouldn't they at least need to compare the turnout level of first time voters in a competitive election with the turnout level of non-first time voters in the same competitive election, and wouldn't they need to show a statistically significant difference between those two turnout levels?

Chapter 8: The Turnout Puzzles Revisited

In Chapter 8, they reiterate many of their findings from Chapter 5. Their ultimate conclusion seems to be that if elections are competitive and if the outcome of the election really matters (if the outcome is likely to produce a change in policies), then turnout will be higher.

However, they also go back to their argument that "Young people hold the key to the future because they are the ones who react to new conditions. Older people are, on the whole, too set in their ways to be responsible for social or political change, so most long-term change comes about by way of generational replacement" (216). I do not really see how these two different conclusions fit together. If, on the one hand, it is really the competitiveness or lack of competitiveness in an election that is critical in affecting turnout (which follows the rational choice model), and if they claim that young voters are affected more than older voters by the degree of competitiveness, how does that square with their claim that the problem with turnout among young voters is that they have not yet acquired the skills and knowledge necessary for casting a vote? In other words, is it lack of competitiveness or lack of knowledge that depresses turnout for young voters? Also, if competitiveness affects turnout among non-first time voters (which they claim), isn't that finding inconsistent with their statement that older people are too set in their ways to be responsible for social or political change? [[]]