Voter turnout levels in referendum elections in the Republic of Ireland, 1937-2012

Adrian Kavanagh, 9th November 2012 (updates – 12th November 2012)

Referendum elections have taken place on twenty seven different occasions in the history of the Irish state, with a significant increase in the incidence of these in more recent decades with 55.6% of these (15) having taken place over the past two decades. Referendum elections took place on nine different occasions (including cases where a number of referendum votes took place on the same day) between the founding of the State and 1984, but have also taken place on nine different occasions in the 2000s.

This post will look at voter turnout levels in these referendum elections, with a view to the holding of the Children’s Referendum on 10th November and the low turnout level recorded for that electoral contest.

As the graph below shows (Figure 1), voter turnout levels have varied quite significantly in Irish referendum election contests, ranging from a high level of 75.8% for the very first such referendum on the draft constitution in 1937 to a low of 28.6% for the 1979 referenda on adoption rights and university representation in the Seanad.  The mean turnout level across these different referendum polling days is 53.02% (falling to 52.11% following the holding of the Children’s referendum on 10th November). It is worth noting that, by default, turnouts in a referendum will always be some percentage points lower than those for general and especially local election as a not insignificant number of people (all registered voters with exception of Irish citizens) on the register do not have the right to vote in referendum contests (although in more recent times these numbers have tended to be excluded from the valid poll figures for referendum contests).

Turnout levels vary depending on the time period involved, with higher turnouts generally being recorded for the earlier contests held and with a notable difference in turnouts between the contests held in the low turnout era of the late 1990s and early 2000s against those held in the mid-to-late 2000s when turnout levels, on average, showed a marked improvement on those for the earlier years of the new century. Turnout propensity in referendum elections may also be shaped based on whether other types of elections are being held on the same day as the referendum contest – the most notable example here being the high turnout for the second set of referendum elections held in 1992, which were held on the same day as a general election.  The fact that the 1999 and 2004 referendum contests were held on the same day as local and European elections probably was also a factor in terms of increasing turnout propensity for those contests, especially in the more rural areas where turnout levels for local elections will generally tend to be highest.

The level of turnout can also be seen to reflect the issues involved in the contest/these contests, with high profile issues often resulting in higher turnout, as evident in the high turnout recorded for the 1971 referendum on joining the EEC. With the exception of the contests in the late 1990s and early 2000s, referendum elections on European Union issues or moral issues (divorce, right to life/choice) are usually higher than those for other contests, especially those in which the issues appear to be relatively non-contentious, as with the adoption rights/university representation in the Seanad contests in 1979 and the 1996 bail referendum, which are associated with the two lowest turnouts for referendum contests to date in the history of the state.

Figure 1: Voter turnout levels (%) in Irish referendum contests, 1937-2012

In keeping with the second order election model, which argues that turnout levels in second order election contests will tend to be lower than those in first order elections (general elections, in the Irish context), referendum turnouts usually tend to be somewhat lower than those recorded in general elections. The relatively high turnouts in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s pale in comparison with the average turnout levels in general election contests during that era, which would consistently have been in the high 70s. The difference in turnout levels between general election and referendum contests tends to be sharpest in rural and urban working class areas, but not as significant in urban middle class areas.

The day of the week an election is held on is believed to impact on turnout levels, with the general consensus being that weekend voting is the best in terms of facilitating a higher turnout level. Ironically the Children’s referendum will only be the second time a referendum election has been held on a Saturday. The only other occasion has been the second referendum on the Nice Treaty, held in October 2002, in which the holding of the election on a Saturday is believed to have played a role in pushing up the turnout level by c.15% relative to the first Nice Treaty referendum, which had been held on a Thursday, almost a year and half beforehand. Thursday has proven to be the most popular day on which to hold a referendum election (or a series of referendum elections), with Thursday being used as a polling day on 13 occasions to day (exactly 50.0% of all cases, if tomorrow’s contest is also factored in). Wednesday and Friday are the next most popular days to hold polling on, with these days each being used on five different occasions (19% of all cases) to date. Wednesday, however, proved to be a more popular day in the case of the earlier referendum contests while Friday was used as a polling day for a referendum contest for only the first time in 1995 (Divorce referendum). The contests held on a Friday (1995, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009) and Saturday (second referendum vote in 2002) tend to compare favourably in terms of how turnout levels in these compare with those for otheer referendums held in the same period (1990s and 2000s) and it could be argued that such days are chosen in cases where government believes a high turnout to be necessary for the passing of a referendum. There has never been a referendum election on a Monday or a Sunday to date, while polling has taken place on a Tuesday on just one occasion (1987) to date.

Holding a number of referendum votes on the same day does not mean that turnouts will be higher; indeed some of the lowest turnout referendum days were ones that involved a number of contests being held on the same day (1979, 2001).

Figure 2: Turnout levels by Dail consituency for the 2012 Fiscal Stability Treaty referendum vote

One final point to note is that geographical studies of turnout patterns point to fairly consistent trends running across different referendum contests. As opposed to the trend for local and general elections in which the highest turnout levels tend to be recorded in the more rural areas, the lowest turnouts in referendum elections tend to be found in the more western constituencies (with turnout levels usually lowest in Donegal) and average turnouts for urban areas can be as high, or higher, than the average for rural areas (as shown by Figure 2). Referendum turnout levels tend to be highest in the more middle class urban constituencies, with the highest levels usually being recorded in the constituencies of Dun Laoghaire, Dublin North-Central (which will form part of the new Dublin Bay North constituency following the next general election) and Dublin South (whose boundaries are being significantly amended and which is being renamed as Dublin Rathdown).  Looking at a sub-constituency level, it can be seen that class trends for referendum contests tend however to reflect those for other electoral contests, although class differentials in turnout rates tend to be heightened for referendum contests, relative to those for general and especially local election contests. A more detailed discussion of referendum turnouts (in this case relating to EU treaties) in the Dublin City area has been covered in an earlier post. Indeed this and all other voter turnout related posts from this website can be accessed using the following link.

So what does this mean for tomorrow’s contest? Holding the contest on a Saturday will have a positive impact on turnout propensity. On the other hand, the issue involved in tomorrow’s vote appears to be similar in tone to those of the 1979 and 1996 contests, which may infer a low turnout propensity given that these contests recorded record low turnout levels. It can be more clearly suggested, however, that turnouts will probably be again highest in urban middle class constituencies (and will probably be highest in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin South or Dublin North-Central, although some rural constituencies, such as Tipperary North, will also figure amongst the higher turnout constituencies). Turnouts will again be lowest in the more working class urban constituencies and western rural constituencies, with the lowest levels again likely to be recorded in the Donegal North-East and Donegal South-West constituencies. It will also be interesting to see what impact holding the contest on a Saturday has in terms of resulting in especially low turnout levels in flatland areas especially if a number of registered voters in these areas have “gone home” for the weekend.

Note: The official government publication, containing detailed (by constituency or county) referendum results for all contests held up to the present date, is well worth checking out.

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About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer in Maynooth University Department of Geography.
This entry was posted in Election data, Electoral Geography (voting maps), Referendum elections, Voter turnout and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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