Kostelka, F. (2017) “Does Democratic Consolidation Lead to a Decline in Voter Turnout? Global Evidence Since 1939”, American Political Science Review 111 (4), 653-667. DOI: 10.1017/S0003055417000259
Conventional wisdom states that democratic consolidation generally has a negative effect on voter turnout because, as time passes after democratization, voters become disillusioned with democracy or abstain from the polls as electoral stakes have reduced. However, a closer look on all democratic consolidations between 1939 and 2015 reveals that turnout substantially declined only for half of the cases. For the other half, electoral participation only decreased marginally, remained stable, or even increased. The article aims at solving this puzzle.
Theoretically, the author posits three main sources of turnout decline. The first refers to the democratization context (“mobilizing mechanism”). In this regard, opposition-driven democratization or democratization taking place in electorally mobilized dictatorships yield extraordinary high turnout in the first democratic elections. But as time passes, these participation bonuses dissolve and turnout should recede. The second source of turnout decline is induced by the consolidation context (“demobilizing mechanism”). This mechanism reflects the negative effect of disenchantment on turnout following the phase of democratization. Additionally, the author hypothesizes that the magnitude of turnout decline with respect to the consolidation context is dependent on the economic performance of the new democratic regime. The third source depicts the baseline electoral participation (“standard voter turnout rate”) that is solely responsible for turnout decrease if the other two mechanisms are not at play. The standard voter turnout rate is a function of factors that in large part set turnout rates in established democracies and comprises common institutional, political, and socio-economic turnout predictors as well as voters’ individual characteristics. This function should be determined by the same factors in new democracies as in the rest of the democratic world. As there is a general decrease of electoral participation since the 1970s, similar processes are going on in established and new democracies.
The empirical analyses draw on data of 91 democratic transitions and 494 elections during the period of time from 1939 to 2015. The analyses confirm the hypothesized effects of the mobilizing mechanism. However, they do not find support for the hypothesized effects of the demobilizing mechanism. But the empirical models highlight a remarkable exception where the negative effect of disenchantment during democratic consolidation on turnout proves true: the post-Communist states. Only in those states electoral participation decreased below the standard voter turnout rate. It remains unclear, though, why these cases differ that significantly from the rest of the sample.
In summary, the article presents a comprehensive theoretical framework unifying different accounts in the literature on voting behavior and democratization. Furthermore, the empirical analyses are methodologically sound and the underlying database is literally global. I only wonder why the author tested democratic regime performance exclusively based on economic growth. Even if only the economic field is considered, there might be further crucial factors that should affect the evaluation of regime performance in new democracies, the labor market situation for instance. Potentially, such a socio-economic factor might have a comprehensive effect on turnout compared to the slightly abstract factor of economic growth.
Author: Julian Noseck in December 2017