Thursday 29 July 2010

Are people in 'more equal' countries more likely to vote?

In the latest edition of The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett put forward the idea that voter turn-out is higher in "more equal" countries.

There is evidence from societies where voting is not compulsory (as it is for instance in Australia) that voter turn-out may be lower in more unequal countries. Whether or not this reflects a greater separation of interests and an increasing sense of 'us and them' between people at opposite ends of the social ladder, it certainly suggests that too much inequality is a threat to democracy.

The Spirit Level, p. 295 (revised edition)

The reference given to support this claim is cited as 'B. Geysa, 'Explaining voter turnout: A review of aggregate-level research'. This study is available online. Aside from getting the name of the author wrong (it's Geys, not Geysa), Wilkinson and Pickett totally misrepresent the study's findings. The word 'inequality' appears just three times in this 27 page review and although it briefly addresses the question of whether inequality might reduce voting turn-out, it clearly concludes that most studies have shown that it doesn't. At no point does it even vaguely imply that "voter turn-out may be lower in more unequal countries", let alone that this represents a "threat to democracy".

Wilkinson and Pickett do not present a graph of their own as evidence, but thanks to recently published OECD data on voter turn-out, we can put the hypothesis to the test. The graph below shows all rich OECD countries, excluding tax havens (as per The Spirit Level) and Australia (where voting is compulsory).

It would be hard to produce a straighter line. Even with a spirit level.


Curmudgeon said...

I thought the US was noted for low voter turnout, with only around 50% voting in presidential elections...

Carl V Phillips said...

Good catch on misrepresenting the reference. It is clear that, per their common practice, they are lying about what the evidence shows.

But you might want to be careful about that percentage, which uses registered voters as the denominator. In the U.S., the failure to register is what attritions most of the potential voters, not the failure to vote once registered, and so the meaningful percentage (of eligible voters) is quite low. I suspect this varies a lot by country, making it difficult to interpret your y-axis statistic.