The wisdom of (smaller) crowds

Conventional wisdom has it that political disengagement and low voter turnout is a threat to democracy. But is it really? This past November, Anna Lo Prete and Federico Revelli of the University of Torino in Italy published a working paper testing the theory that lower voter turnout would lead to worse governance.

To do this, they compared voter data from 82 Italian municipalities, covering the decade 2001-2010, to data assessing how well each community was seen to be doing on a ‘city score’ based on “a large number of variables including green space availability, air quality in terms of pollutant emissions and its consequences on human health, drinking water quality, public transportation systems, energy consumption and waste recycling performance.”

The results, in fact, suggested that communities with lower voter turnout tended to be better governed. As they wrote on page 18:

[I]t is apparent that turnout and city performance are negatively correlated . . . [A]n increase in turnout of ten percentage points is accompanied by 3.6  percentage points worse performance in the earlier wave, and by a 4.2  percentage points worse performance in the later wave. This negative correlation holds also in regressions that include time dummies for the years when turnout was recorded in order to account for year-specific nationwide influences on local elections.

Later in the report, they discuss a comparison between voter turnout data and the professional qualifications of the mayors elected. Again, they found that “turnout has a negative impact on the probability that high professional status mayors are elected, thus confirming that where participation is low due to high costs of voting, it is more likely to elect a competent candidate.”

Thus, they conclude that “a switch from low to high voter turnout that would be favored by a decline in voting costs might not always be beneficial in terms of candidate selection.”

Unless there is some factor to suggest that it is more incompetence that leads to higher turnout, Lo Prete and Revelli’s study leaves us with an intriguing possibility: that far from threatening democracy, lower voter turnout thanks to those who find even a walk to the polling station to be too high a cost to pay might represent the opting out of those who have never taken the issues all that seriously.

These less-serious voters’ self-exclusion, in turn, could be shrinking the electorate down to a more engaged, more discerning and less easily manipulated crowd. In short, what is being bemoaned as a threat to democracy could actually represent a slow reawakening of the true democratic spirit: of informed voters making an informed choice.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to The wisdom of (smaller) crowds

  1. PT says:

    Just a thought, but might the relationship run in the opposite direction, so that quality of governance predicts turnout? In other words, in stable and well-governed municipalities, there is little for voters to get excited about so they tend not to turn out. Meanwhile, in ones where governance is a consistent problem, angry voters feel compelled to trek to the polls to “throw the bums out”.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Prairie Topiary — now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while! We need to get you back into the blog/Twitter world. 🙂

    That’s an idea worth looking into. I’m thinking I might be able to compare differences in turnout between two elections to changes in Human Development Index, World Governance Index or other such rankings when I have the chance; or see if someone else has done so already. Most of what is out there right now tends to suggest that turnout tends to be linked to how competitive a race is, the population’s age mix, and trust levels.

  3. PT says:

    Thanks – have been too busy to blog the last couple of years, but I do miss it. Maybe one of these days…

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