A ‘prominent civil servant with a social-democrat background’ gets to hand out 400,000 euros in subsidies to turn out ethnic minorities to vote, the Telegraaf newspaper reported last week. «It’s not difficult to guess which parties will benefit the most from a turnout campaign among hard to reach groups of voters.»
Ok, so they’re hyping it a bit, but the story is more or less accurate. Last year, the city council almost unanimously asked for a campaign that should result in «a turnout of at least 65% across Amsterdam and a substantial increase in turnout in districts that have a low turnout and among specific groups».
Turnout in elections is uneven, as the charts below illustrate. In neighbourhoods where many people voted economic left (SP or PvdA), turnout was low in 2010. By contrast, in neighbourhoods that tend to vote (neo) liberal (pro-market parties VVD and D66), turnout was high. On the one hand there’s Bijlmer Centrum: 57% voted economic left in 2010, but turnout was only 34%. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s for example the Apollobuurt: 57% voted liberal and turnout was 65%. A similar pattern occured in previous elections.
What causes this correlation between political outcome and turnout? A possible explanation: high educated, well-paid, white home owners have more confidence that politicians will take their interests into account. Therefore, they’re more inclined to think it makes sense to vote. And they often vote liberal.
Interestingly, turnout isn’t always that unequal, as a comparison of the 2002 and 2006 elections serves to illustrate.
The boxplot to the left shows that turnout tended to be higher in 2006 than in 2002. At least as interesting is the fact that inequality in turnout has decreased. The chart to the right shows how this happened. In allmost all neighbourhoods, turnout rose relative to 2002, but it rose most in neighbourhoods that had low turnout in 2002. Examples include the Kolenkit in West, the Vogelbuurt in Noord and Bijlmer Centrum. Incidentally, turnout inequality rose again in 2010.
A similar development has taken place at the national level. In elections for the Lower Chamber, liberal-voting municipalities tend to have higher turnout than left-voting ones. Again, turnout inequality was lower in 2006 than in 2002 and 2003. (If you want to check the calculations: data and code for the analysis at both the local and the national level can be found here.)
2006 was a year in which left-wing parties got relatively many votes. For example, PvdA, GroenLinks, SP and AADG jointly got 33 seats in the Amsterdam council, compared to 26 in 2002. Since inequality was less uneven in 2006, it’s conceivable that the 2006 election result better reflected the preferences of Amsterdammers than the election result of 2002.
In any case: if we want a fairer election outcome, it’s important to get more people to vote, especially in neighbourhoods that tend to have low turnout. Whether the municipal turnout campaign will be effective is difficult to say on the basis of the plans, but it is possible to raise turnout. For example, by organising local elections on the same day as national elections.