Incentives versus Culture: Do Legal Norms Affect Preferences for Political Participation?

Declining election turnout in many democracies regularly provokes public statements lamenting the eroding culture of political participation, arguably the key element of any democratic system. Such comments appear particularly relevant for Switzerland with its comparatively low turnout in elections and referenda. Suppose that a deteriorating political culture is indeed responsible for the observed decrease in political collective action and political interest. What can be done about it?

According to Arend Lijphart and other prominent political scientists, compulsory voting qualifies as a promising cure. Requiring citizens to vote is expected to increase turnout in elections, but also to fundamentally change a country’s political culture over time: Individuals that are socialized under compulsory voting will develop a preference for civic engagement, which should lead to considerably higher participation in all types of political collective action. But can legal norms really give rise to such powerful and widespread socialization effects that lead to lasting changes in a country’s political culture? Do norms trump culture?

In a recent paper, Dominik Hangartner (LSE/University of Zurich), Lukas Schmid (University of St. Gallen), and I try to address this question. We explore the effects of a severely sanctioned and long-standing, but eventually abolished compulsory voting law in the Swiss canton Vaud. Vaud practiced compulsory voting for federal referenda for more than twenty years (1925-1948). Abstention triggered a sizable fine that local police authorities collected by visiting nonvoters’ homes in person. We use this drastic policy intervention in combination with a synthetic control design to estimate the long-term and spillover effects of compulsory voting for federal referenda on different types of political collective action for which participation remained voluntary.

Figure 1: Average turnout in federal referenda in Vaud (black line) and synthetic Vaud (gray line), 1900-1970. Periods in which Vaud practiced compulsory voting are shaded gray.

Figure 1 shows the evolution of annual average turnout in federal referenda in the observed Vaud and the synthetic Vaud, which we constructed using a convex combination of control cantons that did not introduce compulsory voting. The introduction of compulsory voting in 1925 massively increased turnout in federal referenda. Over the treatment period (1925-1948), the effect is about 30 percentage points, on average, if compared with the synthetic Vaud. According to prominent theories of norm internalization and socialization, this should have stimulated turnout even after compulsory voting was abolished. Moreover, it should have also increased participation in other forms of political collective action.

The evidence suggests, however, that compulsory voting had no lasting effects on Vaud’s political culture. Immediately after it abolished compulsory voting, turnout quickly declined to levels that equal those in the synthetic control canton. In the paper we also present evidence suggesting that compulsory voting had some contemporaneous, positive spillover effects on closely related forms of civic engagement, for example, turnout in cantonal referenda and federal elections. These spillover effects of compulsory voting for federal referenda on turnout in cantonal referenda and federal elections that were not concurrent with a federal, direct-democratic vote remained modest, however, declined over time, and vanished as soon as Vaud abolished compulsory voting. In addition, we find that compulsory voting did not even have a notable contemporaneous impact on citizens’ political activity as measured by the number of signed petitions.

Overall, these results suggest that sanctioned legal norms can effectively increase political participation. At the same time, however, the findings highlight their limited potential to induce norm internalization and question prominent theories of socialization in the context of political collective action.


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