Does Compulsory Voting Increase Support for Leftist Policy?

The forthcoming article “Does Compulsory Voting Increase Support for Leftist Policy?” By Michael M. BechtelDominik Hangartner and, Lukas Schmid is summarized by the authors here:

The functioning of democracy rests on an ingenious idea: Since politicians seek re-election, they will pursue policies that enhance a country’s overall welfare. A fundamental problem with this idea may be, however, that in reality only a fraction of all citizens vote. Does this lead to policy choices that differ from those politicians would make if almost everybody voted? If so, unequal political participation in a democracy fails to enhance the welfare of its citizens because politicians only provide benefits to those – typically richer and higher educated – individuals that turn out to vote. Because of the potential gravity of this problem, some have argued that countries should introduce compulsory voting.

Unfortunately, it has proven difficult to ascertain the causal impact compulsory voting on policy. For one, a simple comparison of election outcomes before and after the introduction of compulsory voting will likely provide misleading results. Too many things other than compulsory voting will have changed simultaneously, for example, the most pressing social and economic problems, international affairs, the candidates running for office, and the policies they advocate. As a consequence, we cannot say whether a change in election results is due to compulsory voting or some of these other developments.

There is another important problem. Most of the time, citizens vote for parties and candidates that offer entire policy packages. Therefore, whenever we observe an election, we do not really know whether the eventual result has something to do with a specific policy that a candidate proposed or with other characteristics such as their competence or personality.

To circumvent these problems we study federal referendums in a Swiss canton in the first half of the 20th century. Within that period, the canton of Vaud practiced sanctioned compulsory voting for about 20 years. In many other cantons, however, voting remained voluntary at that time. Yet, they voted on the same policy proposals in federal referendums as citizens in Vaud and faced largely similar economic, social, and political contexts. This makes them useful as a comparison group.

We find that compulsory voting brings turnout close to 90% in Vaud. This turnout increase doubles electoral support for left policy proposals: Bills that propose stricter market regulation and larger welfare programs. This policy effect of compulsory voting is lower in referendums on core topics, presumably because parties concentrate campaign spending efforts on these frontline issues, which limits the potential mobilization effect compulsory voting can have on referendum outcomes.

These findings have several implications. First, and most directly, our evidence suggests that low turnout may indeed lead to policy choices that reflect the views of those who vote, possibly at the expense of those who are politically under-represented. Second, the findings add to a debate in which some worry that compulsory voting mobilizes uninformed voters who will vote almost randomly. This could cause more erratic electoral outcomes and unstable political majorities. At least in the case we examine, sanctioning non-voting leads to a relatively stable increase in electoral support for leftist policies, and only a negligibly small increase in the number of empty ballots. This appears difficult to square with the random voting argument.


This article is part of the AJPS Virtual Issue:  Most Cited, 2015-16.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.