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Column: Is high voter turnout anti-incumbent?

Apr 21 2014, 03:45 IST
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SummaryA 1% increase in turnout is associated with reduction in incumbent’s vote share by 0.3%

High voter turnout, or the lack of it, is one of the hot topics of debate in the period between election and counting day. Conventional wisdom has it that a significant increase in voter participation is bad news for the incumbent party. Careful academic research however produces results that are more nuanced and complex. While scholarship agrees that increased voter turnout has an anti-incumbent flavour, the impact of such turnout depends on the political complexion of the region where the increased turnover occurs. More importantly, research also points out that the increased voter turnout makes an election more volatile and hence less predictable.

Grofman, Owen and Collet (1999) study the relationship between turnout and electoral outcomes in the United States for over half a decade and record a negative correlation between increased turnout and electoral prospects of the party in power. I have calculated the same for Indian elections held between 1980 and 2012 and find similar results. I find that a 1% increase in turnout is associated with reduction in incumbent’s vote share by 0.3%. I stress on the word correlation, as mere existence of correlation does not mean causation. It is possible that high level of dissatisfaction with the government of the day leads to increased turnout and not the other way round. Hence, if the voter dissatisfaction is widespread, then even with lesser turnout same result would have ensued. Low turnout, on the other hand, may be driven by lack of effective choice between candidates. In 1968, George Wallace, a presidential candidate in the US belonging to a party other than the two major ones, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, famously remarked that Democrats and the Republicans were as close as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In such cases, lacking effective choice, the voter decides to sit out rather than exercise her franchise. Thus, the lack of effective choice may be driving low turnout as well as pro-incumbency. Therefore, it is very difficult to claim, based on this evidence, that high turnout leads to anti-incumbency or the other way round.

Hanzford and Gomez (2010) adopt a clever approach to establish the causal mechanism that connects turnout with real electoral outcomes. They look for a variable that has an impact on voter turnout but has no connection with the popularity or otherwise of the incumbent government. They find one in the weather conditions existing on the voting day. Adverse weather

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