Political theorists have argued that democracies should strive for high turnout, leading to an argument for the introduction of compulsory voting, one of the surest ways to increase turnout. Others have warned that this obligation comes at a cost of lower quality votes. We investigate these claims by examining the impact of compulsory voting on proximity voting. First, we examine individuals’ voting behavior in three countries with strong compulsory voting laws: Australia, Belgium and Brazil. Election surveys in these countries include a hypothetical question about the likelihood of voting without legal obligation. We continue with an examination of the effects of compulsory voting in Switzerland, which varies across cantons. Our results support the ‘reluctant voter’ hypothesis: Compelling voters to vote tends to weaken the impact of proximity considerations on electoral behaviour, although this effect remains limited and is only significant in half of the elections that were investigated.
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We acknowledge that other criteria as well might contribute to high quality vote choices. For example, a vote that is informed by mechanisms of accountability as well can be considered a vote that contributes to the realization of democratic representation (Przeworski et al., 1999). However, it falls beyond the scope of this paper to investigate whether compulsory voting rules affect other factors that contribute to a “correct” vote as well.
Note however, that Singh (2016) complements this cross-national analysis with an analysis of the variation between cantons in Switzerland.
Data and replication files for all analyses presented in this paper are available at the Political Behavior Dataverse: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/59F366.
When one of the candidates receive more than 50 percent of valid votes in the first round, the election ends and this candidate is elected president. Otherwise, the two candidates who received the highest percentages of valid votes in the first round compete with each other for the presidency in a second and final round.
Our focus is on the vote choice in the second round of the presidential elections, and thus the choice between the two most popular candidates.
Among voters who casted a valid vote, 33.1% do not remember who they voted for in 2002, 55.9% in 2006, 39.3% in 2010 and 51.6% in 2014.
The Effective Number of Parties, in terms of the vote share is reported. Calculations from the 2013 Australian, the 2014 Brazilian and the 2014 Belgian elections.
Online Appendix A offers an overview of the compulsory voting rules over time in different Swiss cantons. The information in Online Appendix A is obtained from Funk (2007).
We are grateful to Pierre Baudewyns for providing us with access to the 1991 and 1999 Belgian Election Studies. Our analyses of Belgian data are restricted to these three election studies because some crucial variables (e.g., left–right-placement of parties) are missing in other surveys.
While the size of the coefficients changes somewhat, significance levels do not. Results are available from the authors.
Even though partisanship is one of the most studied determinants of voting behavior, the concept is contested and its impact debated in multiple countries. In addition, it could be argued that partisanship is endogenous to ideological proximity. We have therefore replicated our analyses while omitting partisanship from all models. As evident from Online Appendix N, doing so only marginally affects the results and does not substantively alter our conclusions.
Though it should also be pointed out that this evidence is rather weak in the context of presidential elections in Brazil, despite the fact that previous research has argued that left–right labels are of importance in Latin American democracies as well (Nadeau et al., 2017; Zechmeister and Corral, 2013).
Logit coefficient of − 0.482 + 0.339 = − 0.143, which corresponds to an odds ratio of 0.867. The reciprocal of this is 1/0.867 = 1.15.
Actual turnout rates and the percentage of respondents who indicated having voted in each of the election surveys are reported in Online Appendix D (in supplementary material).
In contrast to the analyses of the data from Australia, Belgium and Brazil, we do not include the strength of partisanship, as it was only included in the 1995 election study which would further reduce the estimation sample. Note however, that the results are robust to including partisan strength and relying on a more reduced sample. These results are available from the authors.
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Previous versions of this paper were presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association (Chicago), at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, and at a lunch seminar at Université de Montréal. We are particularly grateful to Johannes Bergh, Christopher Jensen, Ian McAllister and Shane Singh for comments and suggestions. Ruth Dassonneville acknowledges support of the Canada Research Chair Program (Canada Research Chair on Electoral Democracy/démocratie électorale), and Marc Hooghe acknowledges support from the European Research Council (ERC Advanced Grant 295920). Richard Lau received financial support from the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University. Dieter Stiers acknowledges the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) for financial support.
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Dassonneville, R., Feitosa, F., Hooghe, M. et al. Compulsory Voting Rules, Reluctant Voters and Ideological Proximity Voting. Polit Behav 41, 209–230 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9448-6
- Compulsory voting
- Correct voting
- Ideological proximity
- Reluctant voter