Putting Voters in Their Place: Geography and Elections in Great Britain

By Ron Johnston; Charles Pattie | Go to book overview

7
To Vote or Not to Vote: The Problem
of Turnout

Essentially, voters are faced with two basic decisions. One is obvious, and has been the focus for much of this book: who should I vote for? The second, however, is rather more fundamental: should I vote at all? Deciding whether or not to participate in the ballot is perhaps the most basic political statement of all at election time. In this chapter, therefore, we consider trends over time in electoral participation in the UK, and ask what factors influence the decision whether or not to vote. As in previous chapters, we are interested in the role of contextual effects: is the decision whether to vote influenced by political, social, and economic factors in the individual voter's local environment? To understand this fully, we also need to know something about the personal factors that influence participation. To appreciate contextual effects fully, we have to take into account compositional influences too.

Accounting for change in turnout is not simply an exercise in understanding the factors underlying political participation, however; it is also a pressing issue of practical political concern. In many established democracies (including the UK, the USA, and Canada) turnout has been falling in recent elections, in some cases precipitately (Gray and Caul, 2000: Norris, 2002). In the 2001 British general election, for instance, only 59 per cent of the electorate voted, the lowest turnout since 1918: more electors abstained than voted for the election winners. Turnout increased slightly at the 2005 election, but with only 61 per cent of the electorate voting in that contest, it was still one of the lowest on record, hardly demonstrating a strong recovery in public participation. Under such circumstances, concerns can be raised regarding the ability of an election to represent public opinion accurately, particularly if those who abstain are not a random cross-section of the electorate.

Nor is the problem restricted to elections for national governments. Turnout is routinely even lower at so-called 'second-order' elections, where the contest is for a body subordinate to and less powerful than national government, and where voters feel there is little at stake (Heath et al., 1999; Reif, 1984, 1997; Reif and Schmitt, 1980; Schmitt, 2005). Turnout at UK local elections averaged just 40 per cent in the 1990s (Rallings and Thrasher, 1997, 47), dropping to between 30 and 35 per cent in English local elections after

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Putting Voters in Their Place: Geography and Elections in Great Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Editors' Preface v
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • List of Figures xi
  • List of Tables xiii
  • List of Abbreviations xix
  • 1: Models of Voting 1
  • 2: Bringing Geography In 40
  • 3: The Geography of Voting 63
  • 4: Talking Together and Voting Together 106
  • 5: The Local Economy and the Local Voter 144
  • 6: Party Campaigns and Their Impact 187
  • 7: To Vote or Not to Vote 227
  • 8: Votes into Seats 266
  • Appendix - The British Election Study 304
  • References 307
  • Index 335
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