To Vote or Not to Vote: The Problem
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