Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Electoral Turnout and State Redistribution: A Cross-National Study of Fourteen Developed Countries

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Electoral Turnout and State Redistribution: A Cross-National Study of Fourteen Developed Countries

Article excerpt

Few political phenomena have attracted as much scholarly attention for as long a time as electoral turnout. This abiding interest is hardly surprising. The right to participate in competitive elections is a defining feature of democracy, and the fact that widely varying proportions of all eligible citizens actually exercise that right is one of the most striking political differences among contemporary democratic regimes.

The variation in electoral participation across democracies is so large that a substantial cross-national literature has considered its implications for political outcomes. Political scientists studying the developed world have devoted much of their attention to the relationship between turnout and the extent of government redistribution by way of social transfers, which itself varies widely across the affluent democracies. The basic intuition is that higher turnout reflects a more equal representation of low-income groups in the political process, which in turn results in a greater effort to redistribute market income in favor of disadvantaged groups. In the words of Lijphart (1997, 4), "who votes, and who doesn't, has important consequences for who gets elected and for the content of public policies," including, especially, redistributive policies.

Is the expectation that electoral turnout is positively related to the size and redistributive effect of social transfers borne out by the cross-national evidence? In the last decade, a growing number of empirical studies (e.g., Brady 2009, 117; Iversen 2005, 154; Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005, 459-60; Lupu and Pontusson 2011, 325) have suggested that it is-although many other variables also play a role. At the heart of these analyses, however, there is almost always a missing step. Nearly all broad cross-national studies have measured average electoral turnout in a country when what they have really been interested in is the degree to which turnout is skewed in favor of high-income groups. Is it, though, actually the case that the average level of electoral turnout is directly related to its income skew? Certainly, when turnout is very high, there is little room for participation to vary systematically by income group: if 90 percent of eligible persons vote, all income groups will necessarily participate at similar rates. However, what of the difference between an average turnout of 75 percent and one of 50 percent? Does income skew systematically increase as average turnout declines? Similarly, can countries with the same average level of electoral turnout safely be assumed to manifest the same degree of income skew? These are questions that cannot be addressed by the usual practice of using average national turnout as a proxy for its income skew.

Most cross-national studies fail even to mention these issues, implicitly assuming that average turnout is a direct proxy for the income skew of turnout. One recent exception is a careful empirical study by Pontusson and Rueda (2010) that focuses on the political mobilization of lowincome voters, particularly its effect on the willingness of leftparties to ameliorate inequality by government action. The authors of this study are clearly aware of the limitations of using average national turnout as a proxy for its income skew. However, in the end, practical considerations compel them to do so; as they suggest, while "aggregate turnout is, of course, only a rough proxy for relative turnout by income . . . it has the advantage of being readily available and comparable across countries and elections" (Pontusson and Rueda 2010, 681). In sum, even as careful a study as this runs up against the hard fact that fully comparable data disaggregating turnout by income group have heretofore been available for very few countries and elections.

The aim of this article is to address this limitation by assembling comparative data for a number of developed countries that disaggregate electoral turnout by income group-quintiles, to be exact. …

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