Electoral Choice and Ballot Complexity: Effects on Turnout

Work has been a little hectic lately, so the blogging has been light of late.  I do plan on resuming a more consistent schedule soon, however.  Before diving back in the Egypt numbers, however, I wanted to highlight two very good papers I saw presented at APSA several months ago.

When advising on electoral system design, election assistance practitioners often recommend that developing countries implement simple systems that their voters will be able to understand. While the theory behind this is sound, I’ve always wondered if we were overestimating the impact of ballot complexity. After all, I’m sure many Americans aren’t aware that many of their city council races are MNTV, while their congressional race is FPTP, yet our system still functions.  In two papers that actually attempt to answer this question, Aina Gallego of Stanford University and Saul Cunow of UCSD both looked at what impact various electoral variables have on voter turnout. Aina argued that increases in ballot complexity, while not impacting educated voters, has a negative effect on turnout rates of less educated citizens.  Aina used two strategies to test her hypothesis.  For the first, she conducted a field experiment where she sent several fake ballot questions to a random group of Spanish citizens.  The control group was given a straightforward ballot containing descriptions of candidates and which party they belonged to, and then asked to vote for one.  The second group was given the same list, but was asked to vote for up to five.  The second group had a 12 percent drop in responses from low-educated citizens.  For her second strategy, she ran a cross-national regression of electoral system design by turnout among various demographics and found that controlling for other factors, increased preference votes were associated with a decrease in turnout.

I had two problems with Aina’s methodology.  The first is her field experiment failed to simulate a realistic ballot structure that any voter would encounter.  The second is her classification of voting system type was binary (ability to cast preference votes or not) and did not account for the many rules that would significantly impact the level of ballot complexity within preference voting systems.  This could include the option of voting across multiple parties, the ability to rank candidates, and the ability to punish candidates on a given party list.  Also, her theory is based on the cognitive perceptions of voters before they decide to vote, not on what they actually experience in the voting booth.  Invalid ballots are evidence of voters who were unable to handle the ballot, but showed up anyway. Therefore, I would suggest a more realistic measure would be district magnitude, as an increase in candidate choice would, by her theory, intimidate the voter and make them less likely to turnout.  Despite these shortcomings, her paper provided a new look at a concept that has been assumed, but never rigorously tested.

Related, Saul Cunow conducted a field experiment in Brazil and found that there is a curvilinear relationship between the number of candidates on a ballot and turnout.  That is, at low levels of candidate choice, turnout is low as voters feel they have little options.  As the number of choices increases, turnout increases, due to the more choices.  After the number of potential candidates increases past a certain level, however, turnout decreases as people are confused by the number of choices and have a harder time distinguishing between them.  Saul also finds that the presence of party labels does not reduce the probability of abstention among higher numbers of candidates.

Both are good papers and you should read them.

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Posted on December 28, 2011, in Development, Elections and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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