The Social Divide in Voter Turnout
Is it a sign of growing frustration or civic protest? Or is it simply a normal feature of an established democracy? The structural dimension of voter participation is often obscured by debates focusing on day-to-day politics: More than anyone, it is members of socially disadvantaged and less educated social strata who are withdrawing from politics in large numbers.
In media debates about low voter turnout, the dominating image is the politically disenchanted citizen who makes a conscious decision to abstain from voting. If one subscribes to this view, one can assume that non-voters can be found in all societal strata and in all sorts of different places. One can admittedly find minimum shares of non-voters across Germany. But by focusing on the isolated individual, one can easily lose sight of the structural dimension of voter participation: The multitude of people who opt not to vote is in no way equally distributed across the republic. Instead, it is increasingly concentrated in distinct societal strata and groupings. Entire segments of the population are withdrawing from political participation, and are thereby no longer represented in the appointment of parliaments. Social division leads to democratic division.
As part of empirical studies, we grapple with the scope and development of this democratic imbalance. The goal is to facilitate a substantive public debate about the problem of unequal voter participation. For example, in our publication "Gespaltene Demokratie" ("Divided Democracy," in German only), we provide evidence of the strong influence that one’s age, social class, education achievement level and social environment exert on one’s willingness to vote. In our follow-up study "Prekäre Wahlen" ("Precarious Elections," in German only), which used real voter participation rates in 28 major cities and 640 voting districts representative of Germany as a whole, it becomes apparent that the more precarious the living conditions in a location, the lower the voter turnout. Without exception, voter participation in socially disadvantages areas is much lower than in more affluent urban districts.
This correlation between voter-participation rates and social situation in the examined urban areas was also clearly visible in the 2015 parliamentary elections of the northern city-states of Bremen and Hamburg (both studies in German) – and was even more pronounced when compared to the federal parliamentary election. In urban areas dominated by members of the socially weaker societal milieus and characterized by high unemployment and low incomes, voter participation was significantly lower than in the districts that were stronger in socioeconomic terms. Thus, the state parliamentary elections in both Bremen and Hamburg are no longer socially representative.
After taking stock of these situations, we focus on developing solutions that could potentially contribute to reversing voter-turnout trends in both the short and long term. To do so, we are organizing academic exchanges, gathering international experiences and working on developing concrete recommendations for action. On a very practical level, we can build upon some of the projects on political participation that we have already successfully completed, such as our "Schülerhaushalt" project (in German only).