Study: Mandatory voting ups turnout, confusion

Political Science professor Mathieu Turgeon

Rob Rombouts//Western UniversityPolitical Science professor Mathieu Turgeon, a specialist in voting behaviour, recently used big data to explore the impacts of mandatory voting on a country. His findings offer a window not only into voter behaviour, but our understanding of democracy itself.

A lot happens behind the scenes when a country implements mandatory voting – including inevitably higher turnout. But what if those numbers don’t mean what we think they do?

Political Science professor Mathieu Turgeon is using data culled from a list of 110 million Brazilians to challenge assumptions about the participation bump that takes place when eligible voters become compulsory voters.

In the case of Brazil, Turgeon was interested in understanding if there was more to the voter spike than could be accounted for by mandatory voting age. “We can use large data like voters’ files to understand better people’s electoral behaviour,” he said. “This work wouldn’t be possible without big data.”

In Brazil, casting a ballot is mandatory for anyone who turns 18 on or before election day and for anyone who is younger than 70 on election day. For 16- and 17-year-olds, and for anyone 70 or older, voting is permitted but optional.

To test voter behaviour, Turgeon explored data for a narrow age window – those a few weeks before and after their 18th birthdays and those on either side of their 70th birthdays on Oct. 3, 2010, the day of the national election.

It would make sense that the numbers should show a spike in turnout at just-turned-18 and not-yet-70 and be relatively flat on the optional ends of those age groups.

But the findings of Turgeon and co-researcher Andre Blais, Research Chair in Electoral Studies at the University of Montreal, showed something else entirely – a 20-per-cent jump in voting among newly minted 18-year-olds and a 12-per-cent jump among those not required by law to vote.

With data analysis having helped identify the ‘what’ of voting behaviour, Turgeon surveyed 8,000 Brazilians to discover ‘why.’ Was it devotion to democracy? A more refined understanding of the political process?

No and no, Turgeon explained.

Researchers found that while almost all citizens surveyed knew the mandatory voting age started at 18 and ended at 70, about three-quarters of them also believed, erroneously, that anyone turning 18 or 70 at any time during an election year was required to vote.

For Turgeon, the data suggests:

  • Compulsory voting improves turnout beyond the margins of the mandated age groups;
  • Most estimates about the impact of mandatory voter turnout understate the actual effect; and
  • Implementing compulsory voting law doesn’t automatically improve understanding about voting or the political system.

In countries where educated, wealthy, whiter people go to the polls in disproportionate numbers, there’s democratic benefit in ensuring poorer and less-educated people also vote, he said. But that democratizing effect is lost if that latter group shows up at the polls, uninformed, only because they mistakenly believe they’ll suffer unaffordable penalties if they don’t.

“What we know is (mandatory voting) is bringing more people to the polling stations. What we also know is that it doesn’t seem to increase knowledge and political interest,” Turgeon said.

All of which brings him to the broader implications of compulsory voting: Compulsory voting, by itself, is far from enough to improve the democratic process.

He said leaders of a nation looking to implement a form of mandatory voting – as Brazil has done since 1989 – must communicate the laws and regulations clearly.

“They need to find the best way and mechanism that most people will find information easy to understand,” he said. “The easier the task, the better people do at choosing the right thing.”