Heterogeneity in turnout rates across regions and the nationalization of party systems


This article focuses on explaining the variation in turnout rates across districts within a country, a dimension of electoral participation with important political consequences. I argue that the nationalization of party systems is the main factor that drives heterogeneity in turnout rates. The causal mechanism operates through the impact of local party systems. When the nationalization of the party system is low, there are differences in the number and/or the type of local parties changing the voting incentives across districts. As a consequence, low nationalized party systems tend to enhance differences in turnout rates within the polity. Using data from Western Europe legislative elections and alternative nationalization indices, I provide evidence supporting this hypothesis. This article also considers the impact of modernization, ethnic fractionalization and different components of the electoral system.

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


  1. 1.

    Of course, the decomposition of national turnout rates can be done in terms of different units such as districts, municipalities or even polling stations. In this research, I focus exclusively on the variation of turnout at the district level for two reasons. First, ‘most available datasets on the territorial structure of electoral results are aggregated at the level of electoral districts’ (Bochsler, 2010, p. 156), so that cross-national comparison is easier in contrast to smaller units. Second, the district is the basic level where political forces are at play (Cox, 1997, 1999; Singer and Stephenson, 2009) and therefore, it is the appropriate level for testing hypotheses that relate electoral dynamics and turnout.

  2. 2.

    As Monroe and Rose (2002) note: ‘With the exception of countries that use exclusively single-member districts (e.g., plurality systems, such as in the United Kingdom, run-off systems as in France, or alternative vote systems as in Australia) or that use only a single national district (e.g., Israel), most national legislatures are elected using districts that vary in magnitude’ (p. 68).

  3. 3.

    The same correlations have been performed with the logarithm of the number of districts, displaying non-statistically significant results.

  4. 4.

    There are four families of nationalization indices: indices of frequency, of variance, of distribution and inflation measures. Inflation indices are useful for three reasons. First, they are centred on party systems as units of analysis. Second, these indices require less information as only districts and national electoral results are required, which allows us to maximize the number of observations. Finally, inflation indices have been increasingly used in the literature and using them makes my research and findings more comparable.

  5. 5.

    The effective number of parties is calculated as follows:

    where p is the proportion of votes obtained by party i in the election (Laakso and Taagepera, 1979).

  6. 6.

    The three indices are highly correlated. Pairwise correlation between D and Iw is 0.85, between D and E −0.52 and between I w and E −0.83. All are statistically significant at a 1 per cent level.

  7. 7.

    Average district magnitude is collected from databases of Cox (1997), Caramani (2000) and Golder (2007).

  8. 8.

    It is expected that the marginal impact of adding a new district will decrease as the number of constituencies at stake grows.

  9. 9.

    It can be argued that there is a strong association between this measure of competitiveness and the (log) number of districts/(log) average magnitude, but it is not the case. The correlation between competitiveness and (log) average magnitude is 0.14; while with (log) number of districts is 0.1.

  10. 10.

    Alesina et al (2003) index is constructed:

    where s ij is the proportion of group i (I=1…N) in country j.

  11. 11.

    Ethnic and linguistic fractionalization indices are highly correlated among them while the religious it is not to the same extent. The correlation is 0.84 and statistically significant at a 1 per cent level.

  12. 12.

    GDP data source: Groningen Growth and Development Center database http://www.rug.nl/research/ggdc/data/.

  13. 13.

    The logarithm of GDP per capita has been used.

  14. 14.

    In large N comparison, it is extremely complicated to get reliable data to measure heterogeneity and inequality across districts. Therefore, relying on proxies is the only alternative to consider its potential intervening effect.

  15. 15.

    Data from UNU-WIDER database. www.wider.unu.edu/home/en_GB/index/.

  16. 16.

    The CLEA website includes many measures of nationalization for many countries and elections for download. CLEA Effective Number of Parties and Nationalization Dataset [CLEA, at www.electiondataarchive.org].

  17. 17.

    There are problems related with data availability that justify the restriction of the analysis to Western Europe. First, in several elections, turnout at the district level is not available, especially in African and Latin American countries. Second, in some cases, there are no data for specific districts, which create additional problems of comparison within the units of analysis. Finally, there are countries with very few elections, which can decompensate the panel data when a longitudinal analysis is carried out.

  18. 18.

    Voters have to provide a legitimate reason for abstention, or face a fine sanction. They can be disfranchised if they have abstained from four elections within 15 years and may face greater difficulties in getting a job in the public sector.

  19. 19.

    A Hausman test confirmed that there is no correlation between the unobserved heterogeneity and the independent variables, assumption of random-effects model.

  20. 20.

    On the one hand, Klein´s test has been performed in order to test the presence of multicollinearity, supporting the presented model. On the other hand, the models have been reproduced excluding inflation and ethnic fractionalization alternatively but only the first variable is statistical significant at a 1 or 5 per cent level.

  21. 21.

    It can be argued that proportionality – especially PR systems – in the electoral system can affect turnout at the national level (Blais and Carty, 1990). It makes sense to introduce it as a control variable assuming that district magnitude is correlated with proportionality (Cox, 1999). No relevant change takes place when (log) average district magnitude replaces the number of districts.


  1. Alesina, A., Devleeschauwe, A., Easterly, W., Kurlat, S. and Wacziarg, R. (2003) Fractionalization. Journal of Economic Growth 8 (2): 155–194.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Anduiza, E. (2002) Individual characteristics, institutional incentives and electoral abstention in Western Europe. European Journal of Political Research 41 (5): 643–673.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Benoit, K. (2002) The endogeneity problem in electoral studies: A critical re-examination of Duverger’s mechanical effect. Electoral Studies 21 (1): 35–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Berglund, S. and Thomsen, S. (1990) Modern Political Ecological Analysis. Åbo, Sweden: Åbo Akademis Förlag.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bernhagen, P. and Marsh, M. (2007) The partisan effects of lower turnout: Analyzing vote abstention as a missing data problem. Electoral Studies 26 (3): 548–560.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Blais, A. and Aarts, K. (2006) Electoral system and turnout. Acta Politica 41 (2): 180–196.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Blais, A. and Carty, K.R. (1990) Does proportional representation foster voter turnout? European Journal of Political Research 18 (2): 167–181.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Blais, A. and Dobrzynska, A. (1998) Turnout in electoral democracies. European Journal of Political Research 33 (2): 239–261.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Bochsler, D. (2010) Measuring party nationalisation: A new Gini-based indicator that corrects for the number of units. Electoral Studies 29 (1): 155–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Brady, H.E., Verba, S. and Scholzman, K.L. (1995) Beyond SES: A resource model of political participation. American Political Science Review 89 (2): 271–294.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Clark, W.R. and Golder, M. (2006) Rehabilitating Duverger’s theory: Testing the mechanical and strategic modifying effects of electoral laws. Comparative Political Studies 39 (6): 679–708.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Cox, G.W. (1997) Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Cox, G.W. (1999) Electoral rules and electoral coordination. Annual Review of Political Science 2 (June): 145–161.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Cox, G.W. and Knoll, J.S. (2003) Ethnes, fiscs and electoral rules: The determinants of party-system inflation. Paper presented in: Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association; 12–15 April, Chicago, IL.

  16. Caramani, D. (2000) Elections in Western Europe Since 1815: Electoral Results by Constituencies. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Caramani, D. (2004) The Nationalization of Politics: The Formation of National Electorates and Party Systems in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Caramani, D. (2005) The formation of national party systems in Europe: A comparative-historical analysis. Scandinavian Political Studies 28 (4): 295–322.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Chandra, K. (2006) What is ethnic identity and does it matter? Annual. Review Political Science 9 (June): 397–424.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Chhibber, P. and Kollman, K. (1998) Party aggregation and the number of parties in India and the United States. American Political Science Review 92 (2): 329–342.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Chhibber, P. and Kollman, K. (2004) The Formation of National Party Systems: Federalism and Party Competition in Canada, Great Britain, India and the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Downs, A. (1957) An economic theory of democracy. The Journal of Political Economy 65 (2): 135–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Fitjar, R.D. (2010) Explaining variation in sub-state regional identities in Western Europe. European Journal of Political Research 49 (4): 522–544.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Franklin, M. (1996) Electoral participation. In: L. LeDuc, R. Niemi and P. Norris (eds.) Comparing Democracies: Elections and Voting in Global Perspective. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 216–235.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Gallego, A. (2010) Understanding unequal turnout: Education and voting in comparative perspective. Electoral Studies 29 (2): 239–248.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Golder, M. Distributor (2007) Replication data for: Democratic electoral systems around the world, 1946–2000, http://hdl.handle.net/1902.1/10479 UNF:3:Tck3h2JpUzohauPCbNIm5w==MattGolder [Distributor] V1 [Version].

  28. Grofman, B. and Selb, P. (2011) Turnout and the (effective) number of parties at the national and district levels: A puzzle-solving approach. Party Politics 17 (1): 93–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Grofman, B., Koetzle, W. and Burnell, T. (1997) An integrated perspective on the three potential sources of partisan bias: Malapportionment, turnout differences and the geographic distribution of party vote shares. Electoral Studies 16 (4): 457–470.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Hansford, T.G. and Gomez, B.T. (2010) Estimating the electoral effects of voter turnout. American Political Science Review 104 (2): 268–288.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Horowitz, D.L. (1985) Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Horowitz, D.L. (1993) Democracy in divided societies. Journal of Democracy 4 (4): 18–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Jackman, R.W. (1987) Political institutions and voter turnout in the industrial democracies. American Political Science Review 81 (2): 405–424.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Jurado, I. (2014) Party system nationalisation and social spending. European Journal of Political Research 53 (2): 288–307.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Laakso, M. and Taagepera, R. (1979) Effective number of parties: A measure with application to West Europe. Comparative Political Studies 12 (1): 3–27.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Lago, I. and Montero, J.R. (2009) Coordination between electoral arenas in multilevel countries. European Journal of Political Research 48 (2): 176–203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Lago, I. and Montero, J.R. (2014) Defining and measuring party system nationalization. European Political Science Review 6 (2): 191–211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Lijphart, A. (1997) Unequal participation: Democracy’s unresolved dilemma. American Political Science Review 91 (1): 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Lijphart, A. (2012) Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Lutz, Gorg and Marsh, M. (2007) Introduction: Consequences of low turnout. Electoral Studies 26 (3): 539–547.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Moenius, J. and Kasuya, Y. (2004) Measuring party linkage across districts: Some party system inflation indices end the properties. Party Politics 10 (5): 543–564.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Monroe, B.L. and Rose, A.G. (2002) Electoral systems and unimagined consequences: Partisan effects of districted proportional representation. American Journal of Political Science 46 (1): 67–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Morgenstern, S., Swindle, S.M. and Castagnola, A. (2009) Party nationalization and institutions. The Journal of Politics 71 (4): 1322–1341.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Mozaffar, S. (2006) Party, ethnicity and democratization in Africa. In: R. Katz and W. Crotty (eds.) Handbook of Party Politics. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 239–247.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Pacek, A. and Radcliff, B. (1995) Turnout and the vote for left-of-centre parties: A cross-national analysis. British Journal of Political Science 25 (1): 137–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Podestà, F. (2002) Recent developments in quantitative comparative methodology: The case of pooled time series cross-section analysis. DSS Papers Soc 3-02.

  48. Powell, G.B. (1986) American voter turnout in comparative perspective. American Political Science Review 80 (1): 17–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Riker, W.H. and Ordeshook, P.C. (1968) A theory of the calculus of voting. American Political Science Review 62 (1): 25–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Samuels, D. and Bochsler, D. (2001) The value of a vote: The malapportionment in comparative perspective. British Journal of Political Science 31 (4): 651–671.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Sikk, A. and Bochsler, D. (2008) Impact of ethnic heterogeneity on party nationalization in the baltic states. Paper presented in ECPR at the Panel ‘The Nationalisation of Party Systems in Central and Eastern Europe’. Rennes, France (11-16 April).

    Google Scholar 

  52. Simon, P. (2013) The combined impact of decentralisation and personalism on the nationalisation of party systems. Political Studies 61 (S1): 24–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Simon-Cosano, P., Lago-Peñas, S. and Vaquero, A. (2014) On the political determinants of intergovernmental grants in decentralized countries: The case of Spain. Publius 44 (1): 135–156.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Singer, M. and Stephenson, L.B. (2009) The political context and duverger’s theory: Evidence at the district level. Electoral Studies 28 (3): 480–491.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The author would like to acknowledge Ignacio Lago, André Blais, Marc Guinjoan, José Ramón Montero and Eva Anduiza for their thoughtful and useful comments and suggestions. He would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers of this article for their insightful comments and acknowledges financial support from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, research project CSO2010-1639.

Author information



Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Simon, P. Heterogeneity in turnout rates across regions and the nationalization of party systems. Acta Polit 51, 173–193 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/ap.2015.3

Download citation


  • nationalization
  • turnout
  • inflation
  • modernization
  • party systems