Referendum design, quorum rules and turnout

Abstract

In this article, we focus on the consequences of quorum requirements for turnout in referendums. We use a rational choice, decision theoretic voting model to demonstrate that participation quorums change the incentives some electors face, inducing those who oppose changes in the status quo and expect to be in the minority to abstain. As a result, paradoxically, participation quorums decrease electoral participation. We test our model’s predictions using data for all referendums held in current European Union countries from 1970 until 2007, and show that the existence of a participation quorums increases abstention by more than ten percentage points.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Angrist, J. D., & Pischke, J.-S. (2009). Mostly harmless econometrics: an empiricist’s companion. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Barro, R., & Lee, J.-W. (2001). International data on educational attainment: updates and implications. Oxford Economic Papers, 3, 541–563.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bendor, J., Diermeier, D., & Ting, M. M. (2003). A behavioral model of turnout. American Political Science Review, 97(2), 261–280.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Blais, A. (2000). To vote or not to vote: the merits and limits of rational choice theory. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Blais, A. (2006). What affects voter turnout? Annual Review of Political Science, 9, 111–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Blais, A., & Dobrzynska, A. (1998). Turnout in electoral democracies. European Journal of Political Research, 33(2), 239–262.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bowler, S., Donovan, T., & Karp, J. A. (2007). Enraged or engaged? Preferences for direct citizen participation in affluent democracies. Political Research Quarterly, 60(3), 351–362.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. C2D: Research Centre on Direct Democracy. (2007). C2D Direct Democracy Database. Available at: http://www.c2d.ch.

  9. Chamberlain, G., & Rothschild, M. (1981). A note on the probability of casting a decisive vote. Journal of Economic Theory, 25(1), 152–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Coate, S., & Conlin, M. (2004). A group rule-utilitarian approach of voter turnout: theory and evidence. American Economic Review, 94(5), 1476–1504.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Coate, S., Conlin, M., & Moro, A. (2008). The performance of pivotal-voter models in small-scale elections: evidence from Texas liquor referenda. Journal of Public Economics, 92(3–4), 582–596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Côrte-Real, P., & Pereira, P. T. (2004). The voter who wasn’t there: referenda, representation and abstention. Social Choice and Welfare, 22(2), 349–369.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Cox, G. W., & Munger, M. C. (1989). Closeness, expenditures, and turnout in the 1982 US House elections. American Political Science Review, 83(1), 217–231.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Dhillon, A., & Peralta, S. (2002). Economic theories of voter turnout. The Economic Journal, 112(480), 332–352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Feddersen, T. (2004). Rational choice theory and the paradox of not voting. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(1), 99–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Feddersen, T. J., & Pesendorfer, W. (1996). The swing voter curse. American Economic Review, 86(3), 408–424.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Feddersen, T. J., & Pesendorfer, W. (1999). Abstention in elections with asymmetric information and diverse preferences. American Political Science Review, 93(2), 381–398.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Flickinger, R. S., & Studlar, D. T. (1992). The disappearing voters? Exploring declining turnout in western European elections. West European Politics, 15(2), 1–16.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Fornos, C.A., Power, T. J., & Garand, J. C. (2004). Explaining voter turnout in Latin America, 1980 to 2000. Comparative Political Studies, 37(8), 909–940.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Franklin, M. N. (2002). The dynamics of electoral participation. In L. LeDuc et al. (Eds.), Comparing democracies 2: new challenges in the study of elections and voting. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Franklin, M. N. (2004). Voter turnout and the dynamics of electoral competition in established democracies since 1945. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Freedom House (2007). Freedom in the world: comparative scores for all countries from 1973 to 2006. Available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/fiw/FIWAllScores.xls.

  23. Gentzkow, M. (2006). Television and voter turnout. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121(3), 931–972.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Gerber, A. S., Green, D. P., & Shachar, R. (2003). Voting may be habit-forming: evidence from a randomized field experiment. American Journal of Political Science, 47(3), 540–550.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Geys, B. (2006). Explaining voter turnout: a review of aggregate-level research. Electoral Studies, 25(4), 637–663.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Greene, W. (2008). Econometric analysis (6th Ed.) Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Herrera, H., & Mattozzi, A. (2009, forthcoming). Quorum and turnout in referenda. Journal of the European Economic Association.

  28. International IDEA: Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. (2007). Voter turnout website. Available at http://www.idea.int/vt/.

  29. Jackman, R. W. (1987). Political institutions and voter turnout in the industrial democracies. American Political Science Review, 81(2), 405–423.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Kaufmann, B., Büchi, R., & Braun, N. (2008). Guidebook to direct democracy in Switzerland and beyond. Marburg: Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Kostadinova, T. (2003). Voter turnout dynamics in post-Communist Europe. European Journal of Political Research, 42(6), 741–759.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. LeDuc, L. (2003). The politics of direct democracy: referendums in global perspective. Toronto: Broadview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Levine, D. K., & Palfrey, T. R. (2007). The paradox of voter participation? A laboratory study. American Political Science Review, 101(1), 143–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Lewis-Beck, M. S., & Skalaban, A. (1989). Citizen forecasting: can voters see into the future? British Journal of Political Science, 19(1), 146–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Lewis-Beck, M. S., & Tien, C. (1999). Voters as forecasters: a micromodel of election prediction. International Journal of Forecasting, 15(2), 175–184.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Lupia, A., & Matsusaka, J. G. (2004). Direct democracy: new approaches to old questions. Annual Review of Political Science, 7, 463–482.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Marshall, M. G., Jaggers, K., & Gurr, T. R. (2006). Polity IV project: political regime characteristics and transitions, 1800–2004. Maryland: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Matsusaka, J. G. (1993). Election closeness and voter turnout: evidence from California ballot propositions. Public Choice, 76(4), 313–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Noam, E. (1980). The efficiency of direct democracy. The Journal of Political Economy, 88(4), 803–810.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Norris, P. (2002). Democratic phoenix: reinventing political activism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Qvortrup, M. (2005). A comparative study of referendums. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Radcliff, B. (1992). The welfare state, turnout, and the economy: a comparative analysis. American Political Science Review, 86(2), 444–456.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Rallings, C., Thrasher, M., & Borisyuk, G. (2003). Seasonal factors, voter fatigue and the costs of voting. Electoral Studies, 22(1), 65–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Reif, K., & Schmitt, H. (1980). Nine national second-order elections: a systematic framework for the analysis of European elections results. European Journal of Political Research, 8(1), 3–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Setälä, M. (1999). Referendums in western Europe—a wave of direct democracy? Scandinavian Political Studies, 22(4), 327–340.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Shachar, R., & Nalebuff, B. (1999). Follow the leader: theory and evidence on political participation. The American Economic Review, 89(3), 525–547.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Suksi, M. (1993). Bringing in the people: a comparison of the constitutional forms and practices of the referendum. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Uleri, P. V. (2002). On referendum voting in Italy: Yes, No or non-vote? How Italian parties learned to control referendums. European Journal of Political Research, 41(6), 863–883.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Venice Commission (2005). Tables summarizing the replies to the questionnaire on referendums by the VC adopted by the Council for Democratic Election and the Venice Commission. Document CDL-AD(2005)034add. Available at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2005/CDL-AD(2005)034add-e.pdf.

  50. Venice Commission (2007). Code of good practice on referendums. Document CDL-AD(2007)008. Available at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2007/CDL-AD(2007)008-e.asp.

  51. Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L., & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and equality: civic voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Verhulst, J., & Nijeboer, A. (2008). Direct democracy: facts and arguments about the introduction of initiative and referendum. Brussels: Democracy International.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Voitchovsky, S. (2005). Does the profile of income inequality matter for economic growth? Distinguishing between the effects of inequality in different parts of the income distribution. Journal of Economic Growth, 10(3), 273–296.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Washington, E. (2006). How black candidates affect voter turnout. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121(3), 973–998.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luís Aguiar-Conraria.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Aguiar-Conraria, L., Magalhães, P.C. Referendum design, quorum rules and turnout. Public Choice 144, 63–81 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-009-9504-1

Download citation

Keywords

  • Referendum design
  • Voter turnout

JEL Classification

  • D72
  • C25
  • C20