Voter turnout in Germany has been declining for years at all levels of government. The same holds true for Hamburg. Never before have so few citizens casted their votes (56.9 percent) as during the most recent state parliamentary election. Socially precarious urban districts have become non-voter strongholds. A recent study attests to the social divide of this northern city-state.
The results of the 2015 election for the parliament of Hamburg are not socially representative, according to a recent study conducted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung. A disproportionate share of the more than 560,000 eligible voters who opted not to cast their ballots in the election held last Sunday come from socially disadvantaged milieus.
The new election analysis confirms a result of earlier Bertelsmann Stiftung studies: The more precarious the social situation of a neighborhood, the fewer people from it go to the polls. When compared with the districts with the highest voter-turnout rates, almost 36 times as many households in Hamburg's non-voter strongholds belong to socially weaker milieus. And five times as many jobless individuals and twice as school dropouts are also living there.
Middle-Class Milieus Are Overrepresented
Hamburg's voter strongholds are dominated by members of the Established-Conservative and the Liberal-Intellectual milieus. As a result, these milieus were significantly overrepresented in the results of Hamburg's 2015 parliamentary election. "Social environment determines the level of voter turnout," said Robert Vehrkamp, a democracy expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. "Whether people vote largely depends on where and how they live and whether others in their immediate social environment do or don’t vote."
Turnout for this year's state parliamentary elections in Hamburg 103 districts featured an even higher divide than for the most recent Bundestag election, held in 2013. At that time, over 30 percentage points separated the 10 urban districts with the highest and lowest voter turnout, respectively. However, the gap stood at more than 35 percentage points this year. "The results for the state parliamentary election are therefore even less representative than the results in Hamburg for the federal parliamentary election," Vehrkamp said.
Hamburg's Election Law Intensifies Political Inequality
The study singles out the growing social divide and spatial segregation of Hamburg's urban society as the main cause of the drastically sinking and unequal voter turnout. The city-state's election law, which has been in force since 2011, has not contributed in any way to increasing voter turnout and making it more socially balanced. Instead, it has led to a further intensification of existing political inequality. The share of invalid votes alone was frequently three times higher in the socially precarious non-voter strongholds as in the socially stronger urban districts with higher voter turnout.
Earlier Bertelsmann Stiftung studies on the 2013 Bundestag election had already demonstrated the social inequality of voter participation for Germany as a whole. The studies found that the inequality of voter turnout in Germany has grown three times as large over the last four decades. "The social inequality of the electorate has solidified," Vehrkamp said. "Germany has by now become a socially divided democracy."
The brief study "Prekäre Wahlen – Die Hamburger Bürgerschaftswahl 2015" ("Precarious Elections –The 2015 Parliamentary Election in Hamburg") overcomes the conventional weaknesses of many studies on non-voters. The fact is that telephone interviews and spatial analyses at the electoral-district level cannot completely capture the social dimension of voter participation. For this reason, this study identifies the correlations between social living conditions and local voter turnout for very small spatial units: the 103 districts of the city-state of Hamburg.
The study is based on municipal unemployment data and, more than anything, on small-scale milieu data and other sociospatial indicators of the market research institute microm. This approach renders it possible to make reliable and statistically significant statements about the sociospatial differences and social selectivity of voter participation for the 2015 parliamentary election in Hamburg.