Friday, 6 May 2005

'Informed' people more likely to vote

We're finding it harder than ever to drag ourselves to the polling station. Just 59 per cent of us bothered in the 2001 general election, compared with levels near 80 per cent postwar. Now a study from Copenhagen suggests a key factor affecting our decision to vote is whether we've formed a political opinion based on our own experiences.

In 1996, Copenhagen was divided into 15 districts, and in just four of these, local administration was introduced for a trial period, responsible for things like primary schools and care for the elderly. Four years' later, all the city's residents voted on whether to spread the local administration system city-wide, or to scrap it.

Afterwards, researchers surveyed 2,026 people across the city on whether they had voted, and crucially, on what they thought of the city's 'decentralised administration' trial. If they said it went well, okay, or bad, they were classified as 'informed', whereas those with no opinion were classified as 'uninformed'.

David Lassen at the University of Copenhagen found that regardless of their interest in politics per se, more people living in the four city districts that trialled the local administration voted, and this was because more of them were 'informed' - that is they had an opinion on the issue.

This is an important finding because past research showing better informed people are more likely to vote has been undermined by the possibility that some other factor, for example wealth, affects both how informed a person is and their propensity to vote. In this study, by contrast, people were more informed because of where they lived - not because they were rich or because of some other personal characteristic - and being informed in this way was shown to increase the likelihood they would vote, regardless of their wealth, education or even how interested they were in politics.

Lassen, D.D. (2005). The effect of information on voter turnout: evidence from a natural experiment. American Journal of Political Science, 49, 103-118.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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