Claim: “Voter turnout is 7% higher on average in countries with proportional representation.”
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Stated by:  Fair Vote Canada, on its website.

 

Fact Check

The claim above is true.

Research is clear that voter turnout is higher in countries with proportional representation than in countries with “winner-take-all” systems.

Why are we including this in a Fact Check?

Sometimes proponents go further than this and say proportional representation will cause more people in Canada to vote. Opponents will challenge this.

We can hope that with proportional representation making voting more meaningful (almost every voter will be able to help elect a representative), and elections more competitive (far fewer “safe seats”), turnout will rise. It’s a very logical argument. But conclusive evidence is not available, simply because most OECD countries began using PR such a long time ago that there  is no “before and after” data to make the comparisons.

 

Voter turnout is higher in countries with proportional representation

  •  Multiple researchers have found voter turnout is higher in countries with proportional systems:- Lijphart (2012) looking at 36 democracies over 55 years found turnout to be 7% higher.
    – Blais and Carty (1990) – 8% higher
    – Norris (1997) – 6-10% higher
    – International Democracy and Electoral Assistance (1999) – 12% higher among youth
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  • A study in Switzerland comparing elections in about 2500 municipalities (communes) found that turnout was 3-7% higher in municipalities using proportional representation compared to first-past-the-post. This study was notable because it compared turnout rates using two systems within the same country.
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  • A study in the US compared turnout data for 215 elections in 49 jurisdictions that used either cumulative voting (a semi-proportional system) or plurality voting (first-past-the-post). This study was notable because it also compared turnout rates using two systems within the same country, but more significantly, this study also looked at turnout rates before and after a switch to cumulative voting. Researchers found that a switch to cumulative voting increased turnout by about 5%, an increase that was sustained for the second election.
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  • More competitive elections have been shown to be associated with higher turnout. Franklin (2003) found: “In plurality (first-past-the-post) elections, if the average margin of victory increases by 10 percent, turnout will drop by 5.7 percent.”
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  • After New Zealand switched from first-past-the-post to proportional representation there was a small increase in voter turnout for the first election with PR, then voter turnout fell in subsequent elections, consistent with a pattern of declining turnout across OECD countries.
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  • There is no research looking at a significant number of OECD countries that have switched from winner-take-all to proportional systems to assess the impact on voter turnout. This is because most OECD countries have had proportional systems for up to 100 years.

References

Blais, Andre and Carty, R.K. (1990). Does proportional representation foster voter turnout? European Journal of Political Research,18: 167-181.

Bowler, S., Brockington, D., and Donovan, T. (2001). Election Systems and Voter Turnout, Experiments in the United States.The Journal of Politics. Vol. 63, No. 3 (Aug., 2001), pp. 902-915

Franklin, Mark (2003). Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945. Cambridge University Press.

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA, 1999). Youth Voter Participation.

Karp, Jeffrey and Banducci, Susan. The impact of proportional representation on turnout: Evidence from New Zealand. Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 363-377.

Lijphart, Arend (2012). Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale Press.

Norris, Pippa (1997). Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems. International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 297-312

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