Drei leere Wahlkabinen in einer Turnhalle, die als Wahllokal genutzt wird.

The typical non-voter comes from a socially disadvantaged milieu

Voter participation has reached record lows in Germany. Although the Bertelsmann Stiftung has demonstrated several times that many non-voters live in precarious neighborhoods, their social profile continues to be a matter of dispute. A new analysis categorizes them for the first time into societal milieus.

The average non-voter comes from the socially disadvantaged milieus. This finding was corroborated by an analysis of the most recent Bundestag election that correlates non-voters not only with neighborhoods, but also with societal milieus. To do so, the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the political polling institute infratest dimap jointly analyzed voter turnout in the 640 representative voting districts used in the election polls of the national public broadcaster ARD. The analysis found that voter turnout in September 2013 among socially privileged classes was up to 40 percentage points higher than that among socially disadvantages milieus.

The new calculations confirm the results of earlier studies by the Bertelsmann Stiftung: The more precarious the social situation of a neighborhood, the fewer people from it go to the polls. For the first time, the new analysis also allows conclusions to be drawn about the social profile of non-voters in Germany.

"More than anyone, it is socially disadvantaged people from the milieus of the lower and lower-middle class who opt not to exercise their right to vote," says Robert Vehrkamp, a democracy expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Liberal-Intellectuals Go to the Polls Most Often 

For their analysis, the election researchers used the so-called Sinus-Milieus®, which divide the population into 10 societal groupings – according to social situation, values and attitudes. The socially strong Liberal-Intellectual milieu had the highest voter turnout for the 2013 Bundestag election, as 88 percent of all eligible voters from this grouping cast their votes. In addition to the Liberal-Intellectuals, the other milieus to be overrepresented were the Established-Conservative, the High Achiever and the Socio-Ecological milieus, with voter turnouts ranging between 80 and 83 percent.

In contrast, the willingness to vote was generally lower in the socially disadvantaged classes. The lowest voter turnout rate (just under 50 percent) was found in the milieu of the so-called Escapists, a consumption-oriented grouping of the lower and middle classes. At almost 60 percent, voter participation was also rather low in the Precarious milieu, which is characterized by worries about the future and meager opportunities for social advancement. More than one in every three non-voters comes from these socially weaker milieus. On the other hand, they only make up 22 percent of all eligible voters. As a result, their voices are clearly underrepresented in the election results.

“Germany has become a socially divided democracy. There is conspicuous gap in voter turnout between the upper and lower classes.”

Robert Vehrkamp, democracy expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung

The social milieu in which a citizen grows up and lives has a major influence on whether he or she votes.

Values and Attitudes Exert a Class-Spanning Influence on Voting Behavior

However, a milieu's social situation is not the only decisive determinant of its level of voter participation. The second dimension of milieu affiliation – attitudes, values and behaviors – also influences one’s willingness to vote. This is very clearly displayed by the example of the Escapist milieu. In this grouping, which has the lowest voter-turnout rate, the socially precarious situation, values and attitudes are mutually reinforcing. As Vehrkamp notes, "Social problems go hand in hand with a distinct propensity to consume, being fun-oriented and shunning the rules and obligations of society, leading to a pronounced non-voter climate."

The influence of values and attitudes is felt in all social classes: The more a milieu is committed to individualization, self-realization and experimental reorientation, the lower the voter turnout.

“In all social strata, individualization and changing values are leading to a weakening of the voting norm.”

Robert Vehrkamp, democracy expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung

The complete analysis of the election can be found in the form of the "EINWURF 2/2015" publication in the column on the right.