Turnout wasn’t bad in last week’s general elections in Britain. Two out of three eligible British voters went to cast their ballots (66.1 percent). In France however, presidential elections typically mobilize more than 80 percent. Parliamentary elections, less important, still attract around 60 percent. In Germany, turnout used to be very high in general elections with up to 90 percent in the Seventies and Eighties (not to mention the near 100 percent turnout in the GDR, where voting was an enforced duty), but it has come down to slightly above 70 percent throughout the past decade. It may come as a surprise that in Switzerland of all places, with Europe’s most perfectly decentralized system of direct democracy, voters seem somewhat exhausted. Over the years, their turnout has dwindled down to less than 50 percent in the federal parliamentary elections. How come?
Parliamentary elections take place every four years, but the Swiss also hold referenda and decide on numerous “initiatives” throughout the year, at the federal, the regional and the communal level. The population has been growing steadily, while the threshold for launching an initiative changed only once, in 1977, after the introduction of women’s suffrage. The effect of this uneven evolution is that the number of initiatives goes up, and so there is always more to vote on. The issues are extremely diverse, including in terms of importance, as they range from petty local stuff to crucial national matters, from a new sewage system for one’s home village to a federal ban on “mass immigration”, for example. This last initiative, accepted in 2014, is currently causing the Swiss government a lot of trouble: the citizenry voted for a reintroduction of fixed contingents, which would contradict the bilateral treaties with the European Union, guaranteeing the free movement of people. This could have huge detrimental consequences for the small alpine country’s economy.
These examples show that people’s motivation to cast their votes depends, among other things, on the importance of the issues at stake. Especially if they are highly controversial and perceived as a tight call, the single voter may hope that his vote will be the decisive one – and that will give his motivation a boost. However, there can also be too much of a good thing, as the Swiss example demonstrates. Democratic participation in collective decision-making can be an outright burden. Economists have a name for that: decreasing marginal utility. Just like ice-cream, the excitement that the right of vote produces doesn’t necessarily increase with quantity. From the economic point of view, it is a puzzle anyway why people take the trouble to cast their votes at all. Anthony Downs was the first to hint at this “paradox of voting” in his “Economic Theory of Democracy” (1957).
The probability of having the pivotal role is nearly nil, so why would anybody bother? The utility that voters derive from casting their ballot cannot possibly have anything to do with their individual payoffs from the overall result, and it must exceed the non-trivial cost of gathering information and making up one’s mind. It must have to do either with the good feeling of at least expressing one’s views, as Geoffrey Brennan and Lauren Lomasky have argued in “Democracy and Decision” (1993). Or it must be altruism. The upshot is, at any rate: Voting is irrational insofar as it is intended to further a specific political aim; but voting still takes place nevertheless because it provides some kind of moral satisfaction that then additionally breeds intrinsic motivation in return.
High turnout helps to avoid tough questions about legitimacy, especially when the outcome is as clear as recently in Britain, with David Cameron’s victory (leaving the specific effects of the “first past the post” system aside). But consider the Swiss case again, specifically the important initiative against mass immigration. Only a slight majority of 50.3 percent of the votes were in favour of the ban; and turnout was 56 percent of the electorate. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that this means that only one out of four eligible Swiss voters actually desires to slow down immigration, and be it at the peril of the economically important treaties with the EU. Voter number two was not strong enough, and the eligible voters numbers three and four thought they could safely go skiing in the mountains or stay in bed. After the fact, it so turns out that all three out of the group of four are now unhappy. The result thus does not correspond to the “true preferences” of the electorate, not even on average. Some correction took place last winter, when another initiative on a similar topic was rejected. But the problem with the EU still remains to be solved, and nobody really sees how. The only thinkable solution is that the Swiss change their minds and express this in new initiative.
The question, however, is a general one. Is there a natural quorum for collective decisions to claim legitimacy? Is it a problem when a relatively small group of people decide on something that regards everybody? If it so, the Liechtenstein solution might be worth considering. The Prince’s subjects have a formal duty to vote, and thus turnout is high, reaching more than 90 percent. The Swiss canton of Schaffhausen actually also has a formal duty in place – since 1876. Non-voters are fined – by an amount that hasn’t changed since the days in which the duty was imposed: 3 francs, the equivalent of 2 British pounds. Other cantons had the duty, too, right until the Seventies, but then gave it up.
This little bit of historical information is enough to invalidate a standard narrative that the adherents of the populist Right in Switzerland like to spread. Here is how it goes: According to them, the other Europeans – the Brits, the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Spaniards etc. – all have had a fatal historic upbringing. Civil rights were at some stage accorded to these peoples by some almighty King or sovereign Emperor, and since they thus harbour a deeply engrained fear that these rights could be taken back again if they fail to make proper use of them, these poor frail figures religiously fulfil their duty. In contrast to this, the Swiss citizens, strong of their long-grown self-confidence as legitimate sovereigns in their own right, feel and know themselves free and independent enough to make use of the ballot or not, just as they please – and that is of course the way it should be. “Se non è vero, è ben trovato”, as the Italians say. The real story behind this legend might be that populists typically benefit from low turnout, since their constituency can be more easily mobilized than the rest.
Low participation is clearly unsatisfactory. It is important to find out about its sources – is it that people aren’t interested in politics generally? Is it that they cannot handle the complexity of the issues? Or don’t they see options that would fit them? Another possibility is that they simply trust their fellow citizen-voters. By not casting their ballot, they in fact delegate their power to them. They are perfectly free to do so. Remember John Maynard Keynes’ parable of the beauty contest in the “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, where not the prettiest wins, but the one girl of which most people think that the others find her prettiest, which is not exactly the same. (He then goes on to compare this to the formation of stock prices, but never mind.) Here, the non-voters might rely on an analogous wisdom of the rest of the crowd. The mechanism at work could then be the opposite of an “adverse selection”, one might argue: only those will decide who have informed opinions on the matter. This is not only a very optimistic, not to say doubtful thesis, however, and one should also beware of Plato’s philosopher thus entering the scene through the back door.
One thing is certain, though: much as low turnout may be unsatisfactory; much as it may disturb efficient decision-making; much as it may increase the distance between the revealed and the “true” preferences of the electorate at large – it certainly doesn’t impair legitimacy. The right to vote cannot be forsaken. Neither can it be turned around to become a duty. Those voters who don’t make use of their right simply need know that they do so in a context of uncertainty. The outcome can be exactly what they expect, and it can be the total opposite. Whoever prefers to go skiing or to stay in bed on a voting day, which is absolutely rational, should please just not complain afterwards.