On Sunday, May 14, 2017, more than 8 million eligible voters cast their vote for the parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). At 65.2 percent, voter participation in Germany's most populous federal state was higher than it had been in two decades. Nevertheless, there was no corresponding decrease in the social divide of voter turnout. On the contrary, the social divide between voters and non-voters even slightly intensified again.
This is shown by our current study. For it, we analyzed the level, change and social profile of voter turnout for 274 voting districts representative of NRW as a whole as well as for a total of 158 neighborhoods in four large cities (Düsseldorf, Cologne, Dortmund and Bielefeld).
The results show that the following statements also hold true for the election in 2017: The more economically weak and socially precarious the milieu structure in a voting district, the lower the voter turnout and the increase in voter participation, as well. In contrast, in the economically stronger milieus of the middle and upper social strata, voter turnout was significantly higher and rose at a higher rate, too. This further intensified the social divide of voter turnout. In percentage terms, there are almost four times as many people without jobs and nearly twice as many school dropouts in the voting districts with the lowest voter turnout as there are in the voting districts with the highest rate of voter participation.
This is also shown if one looks at the change in voter turnout: In the economically stronger voter strongholds, voter turnout rose by an average of six percentage points, from approximately 73 to 79 percent. In contrast, in the non-voter strongholds, which are primarily inhabited by economically weaker households, voter turnout only rose on average by fewer than five percentage points (2012: 44.5 percent; 2017: 49.3 percent).
CDU and FDP benefit from mobilizing non-voters
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) were the main beneficiaries of the mobilization of non-voters. Almost two-thirds (520,000) of all the additionally mobilized non-voters (810,000) voted for the CDU (430,000) or the FDP (90,000) in the 2017 state parliamentary election.
Significantly less successful was the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was only able to mobilize about 170,000 additional non-voters. Another reason for the SPD's poor performance was the low rate of voter participation in the social milieus of its core voters. The SPD mainly enjoyed good results in places where voter turnout is low. In fact, the lower the voter participation in a voting district, the better the result for the SPD. However, due to this low rate of voter turnout, this success was reflected less in the overall election result of the SPD than the average results of the CDU and the FDP in the socially stronger voter strongholds.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was also unable to contribute to diminishing the social divide of voter turnout. Although the party mainly benefited from former protest voters from the Pirate Party, it only mobilized relatively few additional non-voters.