Divided Government Means Lower Voter Turnout

  • Essay 2 response for PS 1010, Wayne State, Fall 2012.
  • Example of teaching mechanism: compare your essay to mine.
  • Niche audience: American researchers.

 Article:  Mark N. Franklin and Wolfgang P. Hirczy. Separated Powers, Divided Government, and Turnout in U. S. Presidential Elections.  American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 316-326.

My Analysis (for my PS 101 class / Essay 2):  Does one particular structure of government exacerbate low voter turnout more than some other structure? Considering America’s low turnout rate, does the separation of powers structure help create and keep America’s low voter turnout rate?

America’s uniqueness keeps it from comparative analysis, since it is the only country with a strict separation of powers between the executive and legislature, and can only somewhat be compared with France as both countries advance “strictly voluntary voter registration” (316). Of particular salience, the separate branches of the executive and legislature allows for voting patterns of divided government. Indeed, mandatory voter registration may only increase turnout by 8% (Mitchell and Wlezien 1995), and so the authors argue that divided government may help explain low voter turnout in the United States.

Divided government may lower voter interest and voter turnout because no single party controls the government, and thus, voters do not know whom to blame (or praise).  Indeed, many theories of voting are based on voters who “care” about the election outcome because one side, theoretically, would greatly benefit one particular voter over the other. However, separated powers divides responsibility between the branches of government, which reduces the likelihood that campaign promises will be kept, and further, information costs are much higher under the structure of separation of powers because it takes much more information to correctly ascertain which party obstructed or enacted the voter’s preferences (318). Divided government “mutes clear policy directions” (318).

The authors’ research voter turnout when either house of Congress was not controlled by the President’s party (i.e. divided government) for up to twelve years, against when there was no divided government in order to see if divided government does in fact reduce voter turnout. During the 39 presidential elections under review (1840-1992), there were 21 instances of divided government. Under the second model, “each election held under conditions of divided government reduces turnout by 1.96%, on average” (321). To be sure, after 12 years of divided government, voter turnout is depressed by 5.88% (321). This relationship is consistent over the centuries.

A “startling” discovery of this research found that once divided government ceased—voter turnout rates returned to the original [high] equilibrium in the next election (322). As the authors relate, “there is an equilibrium turnout from which the actual level of turnout diverges in particular elections because of specific characteristics of those elections” (323). Further, closeness of the race is about as statistically significant as divided government; meaning, a race that is not expected to be close will depress turnout about the same amount as divided government, from 2-6 percent. Thus, divided government for 12 years and an expected “landslide” should depress the vote by 10-12 percent (323).

This research is important because it helps us solve the “puzzle” of declining voter turnout, expounds that automatic voter registration laws are not a catch-all solve-all, and explains that linkages between voters and the choice to actually vote are complex and complicated. Moreover, “separated powers may reduce the risk of tyranny, but they appear also to have the side effect of reducing the stakes involved in an election, and hence the motivation to take part” (324).

*****This article excellently detailed its purpose through explaining the theory, hypothesis, methods and findings at the very beginning. I repeat (from page 316):

Theory: Turnout is determined in part by the motivations of voters to affect the course of public policy. Institutional arrangements that condition the link between the vote and its policy consequences impact these motivations. One such institutional arrangement is the separation of powers. Countries with separated powers should see lower turnout, and anything that causes the extent of separation to vary should give rise to corresponding variations in turnout.

Hypotheses: Divided government, by temporarily increasing the extent to which powers are separated, will reduce the motivations of voters to participate in subsequent elections.

Methods: A time-serial model of turnout is developed and tested on data for U.S. presidential elections from 1840 to 1992.

Findings: Divided government does influence turnout, controlling for changes in electoral laws and the closeness of elections. Moreover, the effects are cumulative, with turn-out declining by about 2% for each consecutive presidential election conducted under conditions of divided government. This finding may help to explain declining U.S. turn-out in recent years. More importantly, it validates the conjecture that the separation of powers itself has a depressing effect on turnout, which helps to explain why turnout is lower in the U.S. than elsewhere.


One thought on “Divided Government Means Lower Voter Turnout

  1. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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