Adrian Kavanagh, 26th February 2016
This post offers an in-depth geographical study of voter turnout levels at the last general election in 2011. The geographical variations in General Election 2011 turnout levels illustrated in this study are likely to be again, more or less, evident in today’s election.
Voter turnout can be defined as the percentage of people who turn out to vote in a given election. In the USA, voter turnout is the percentage of the valid adult population (aged 18 and over) who turn out to vote. In Ireland and other European countries, however, voter turnout is expressed as the percentage of the number of people on the electoral register. Thus, if there are problems with the electoral register, turnouts may be over, or under, estimated in these countries. Despite often being portrayed as a country with a high level of interest in all things political, Ireland had one of the lowest average turnouts in Western Europe in the 1990s – for instance, only Portugal and Switzerland had lower average turnouts than Ireland did during the 1990s. At the same time, turnout rates were declining in western democracies in the last few decades of the 20th Century, with some particularly significant drops evidenced between electoral contests; for instance the UK general election turnout level fell from 71.5% in 1997 to 59.4% in 2001.
Low and declining voter turnout levels also became increasingly characteristic of Irish electoral contests from the early 1980s onwards, with general election turnouts falling by 13.5% between 1981 and 2002. Turnout levels fluctuated significantly during the Celtic Tiger period, and especially in those areas that had been impacted most by the social and economic changes of the late 1990s and 2000s, namely the more urban parts of the state – most notably in Dublin and its rapidly growing commuter belt. At the national level, turnout trends in the earlier part of this period marked a continuation of a sustained decline in electoral participation levels that had marked all Irish electoral contests since the early 1980s. The low turnout levels for the 2002 contest marked the culmination of this trend as subsequent elections, starting with the second Nice Treaty Referendum in 2002, have seen turnout levels in all electoral contests returning to levels experienced before the start of the Celtic Tiger era. These trends have been most pronounced in urban Ireland, with turnout levels falling by almost ten percent in Dublin and its commuter belt between 1992 and 2002, but then rebounding back almost to 1992 levels for the 2007 contest and actually exceeding those levels in the 2011 election.
The 2007 General Election had marked a notable break from the trend set in the previous quarter of a century of continually declining voter turnout levels in Irish general elections, with the percentage turnout level increasing by almost five percent to a level of 67.0% from the record low turnout level of 62.6% for the 2002 contest, while the actual numbers turning out to vote increasing by over two hundred thousand from 1,878,609 in 2002 to 2,084,035. One particularly notable aspect of this election was the significant increase in turnout levels in the Greater Dublin region, which had registered significantly lower turnout levels than for the rest of the state (especially in the more working class areas and areas of newer housing) during the 1990s and early 2000s. The turnout level in Dublin for the 2002 election had been 458,267 (56.8%) and this had increased to 510,653 (62.9%) in 2007.
The 2011 election marked a continuation of the trend of increasing turnout propensity observed at the 2007 contest. Voter turnout in the 2011 election was up by a further 157,900 voters to 2,243,176, amounting to a percentage increase of 2.9% and leaving the national turnout level (69.9%) just below the seventy per cent mark, the highest turnout level achieved in a number of decades (as shown by Figure 1). The most notable increase, as in 2007, was in the usually lower turnout Dublin region where turnout increased to a level 550,323 (68.2%). Turnout also increased in the other regions, increasing from 67.0% to 68.9% in Leinster, from 69.1% to 71.3% in Munster, and from 69.7% to 71.3% in Connacht-Ulster. Thus, regionally, turnout levels in the more southern and western parts of the state remained higher than those in Dublin and the more eastern parts of the state, but the gap between these regions has been significantly eroded over the last two general elections.
Roscommon-South Leitrim (78.7%) was the constituency with the highest turnout level in 2011, closely followed by Tipperary North (77.2%), the constituency that had the highest turnout in the 2007 election. There was just two other constituencies, Kerry South (74.9%) and Wicklow (74.8%), where the turnout level came very close to the seventy-five percent level. But just over half of the constituencies (22) registered turnout levels of greater than seventy percent (see Figure 1), as opposed to just seven constituencies in 2011. In 2002 fourteen consttituencies had turnout levels of lower than sixty percent, but turnout was higher than the sixty percent level in all constituencies in the 2011 election. The three lowest constituencies, all of which take in part of the Dublin Inner City area, were also the three constituencies with the lowest turnout levels (in the same rank order) in the 2007 contest and these same constituencies also figured among the lower turnout constituencies in 2002. with Dublin South-East (60.5%) had the lowest turnout nationally in the 2011 election, just ahead of Dublin Central (61.6%) and Dublin South-Central (64.5%).
Focusing on the lower turnout Dublin City constituencies and looking at turnout levels for much smaller areas (i.e. electoral divisions), it can be seen that the most notable cluster of low turnout areas tended to be focused on the Dublin Inner City area (Figure 2). Lower than average turnout areas tended to associated with some working class areas (such as Cherry Orchard and Ballymun), as well as areas with higher levels of population mobility (e.g. the Northern Fringe, as well as Rathmines and Ranelagh). The highest turnouts in Dublin City in 2011 tended to be associated with the more settled and usually more middle class areas.
However, while turnouts generally tend to be higher in the more rural constituencies, the biggest increases in turnout levels between 2007 and 2011 tended to be focused on Dublin and the more urban constituencies, as Figure 3 shows. Average turnout levels in urban constituencies increased by 4.8% between the 2007 and 2011 contests, as against an average increase of just 1.1% in the rural constituencies. Indeed the average rate of turnout increase between the 2002 and 2011 election in the urban constituencies (average of 10.0%) was almost twice that of the average rate of increase in the rural constituencies (5.3%), thus showing how the national increase in turnout levels across the 2007 and 2011 elections was mainly been driven by significant increases in urban areas. This also shows how rural-urban turnout differences narrowed across the 2002-11 time period in line with these increasing turnout levels, following on the very wide turnout variations between rural and urban areas that were evident at the low turnout 2002 contest.
The constituencies experiencing the greatest increases and decreases in turnout levels in percentage terms (note that changes in the number of voters are often as much to do with boundary changes as real increases in turnout propensity within a constituency), as evidenced in Figure 2, included Dublin South-Central (+8.7%), Dublin North-West (+7.1%) and Dublin South-East (+6.8%). Constituencies located within the Dublin City Council area tended to dominate the list of constituencies experiencing the greatest increases in turnout levels between 2007 and 2011, including all of the six constituencies that experienced turnout increases of greater than five percent. Seven constituencies experienced a decline in their percentage turnout levels between 2007 and 2011, although there was an actual increase in the numbers voting in some of these constituencies. Declining levels of turnout in these constituencies did not necessarily reflect a reduced turnout propensity on the part of voters in these areas. In a number of cases, these changes were driven by boundary changes, involving cases where high turnout areas were lost to other constituencies (for instance, Meath West losing the high turnout Kells area) or cases where lower turnout areas were added to the constituency (for instance, the transfer of the south-western Offaly area between Laois-Offaly and Tipperary North depressed turnout levels in both constituencies; this area’s turnout level was higher than the Laois-Offaly turnout level but lower than the Tipperary North turnout level). The turnout decline in these constituencies may, or may not, also have been in part due to local authorities in some counties making less rigorous efforts to clean up the electoral register than they did ahead of the 2007 election, given that the general election took place over a year earlier than had been previous anticipated.
To conclude, it must be noted that constituency turnout levels are the result of a multiplicity of different turnout decisions made by individual electors, with these in turn being shaped by a host of a number of, often conflicting, factors, and also by the places in which they live and work. A range of socio-economic, demographic, political and institutional factors help explain why turnouts between areas differ, with some of these listed below.
Higher turnout areas/levels tend to be characterised with higher levels of:
- Older populations
- Married people
- Residential stability
- Rurally based/Agricultural employment
- Affluence/high levels of social well-being
- High levels of education
- Owner occupied housing
- High levels of political mobilisation
- Proximity to the polling station
- High levels of political choice
- Weekend voting
- Numbers on electoral register under-estimated*
Lower turnout areas/levels tend to be characterised with higher levels of:
- Younger populations
- Single or Separated people
- Population mobility
- Urban-based employment
- Social deprivation
- Low education standards
- Local authority or private rented housing
- Low levels of political mobilisation
- Distance from the polling station
- Low levels of political choice
- Voting on weekdays
- Numbers on electoral register over-estimated*