Selective participation

Usually, participation literature distinguishes only between participants and abstainers, and several scholars further argue that turnout in elections is habitual. According to the habituation thesis, especially early turnout experiences lead citizens to establish a certain pattern of participation, in most cases either permanent voting or permanent abstention. Once such a pattern has developed, people no longer need to decide whether they will vote or not each time there is an election. However, if this thesis were entirely correct, aggregate level of turnout in a given country should be highly similar across elections, since (almost) all habitual voters would vote, whereas (almost) all habitual abstainers would abstain. In the real world, though, there are huge differences in turnout from one election to the next in a single country. This is especially true when considering elections on different levels of government and even more so when taking into account direct democratic votes. For the latter case Switzerland is the most extreme case with around 3-4 direct democratic votes per year.

Using the Swiss case, the aim of this research project is first to analyse how many people belong to the groups of habitual voters and abstainers or if there is rather a much bigger third group of so-called selective voters who sometimes turnout, but sometimes not. Afterwards the question emerges what drives these selective voters to the polls. In a second step we thus examine the effects of both individual and contextual factors for the turnout decision of selective voters.

In a first paper we show that the group of selective voters is indeed very large and comprises around 65% when looking at ten successive votes. For the composition of selective voters on the individual level we expected to find some intermediate characteristics between permanent abstainers and voters. This expectation is met for socio-demographic factors, which do not tend to predict voting or abstention. Political variables, in contrast, predict abstention among selective voters. Especially influential are variables such as political interest and political competence.

Sciarini, P., F. Cappelletti, A.C. Goldberg and S. Lanz (2016). The Underexplored Species: Selective Participation in Direct Democratic Votes. Swiss Political Science Review 22(1): 75-94.

Following the results of this paper we argue that there must be some counterforce that balances the trend of abstention stemming from individual political variables. One such counterforce can be contextual variables such as the referendum campaign preceding every vote. In the literature one can find the argument that referendum campaigns are in general more relevant than electoral campaigns, as party identification and related factors matter less. Measuring campaign intensity via newspaper ads in major Swiss journals, we can show that a higher intensity leads to an overall increase in participation (partly also for habitual (non-)voters), but especially so for selective voters.

Goldberg, A.C., S. Lanz and P. Sciarini (2017). Beyond habitual voting: The impact of campaigns on turnout.