Evidence from a series of laboratory voting experiments shows that introducing free-form communication before an election increases the expected turnout margin in favour of the majority party so that it becomes more likely to win the election.
The findings of the research by Thomas Palfrey and Kirill Pogorelskiy, which is published in the February 2019 issue of The Economic Journal, are relevant for actual elections as ‘get-out-the-vote’ campaigns shift towards social media, reaching new levels of political communication.
Elections in democracies are decided by the people who turn out and vote. But identifying the key forces that drive voter turnout has proved difficult. This new study explores the effect on voter turnout of one such force: communication among voters.
The main finding is that pre-election communication among voters benefits the majority party by increasing its expected turnout margin so that it becomes more likely to win the election.
The researchers use context-neutral laboratory experiments, where subjects (undergraduate students) are divided into supporters of two political ‘parties’ that compete against each other in a winner-take-all election.
Voting is costly (for example, getting to a poll station to vote incurs transportation costs and takes valuable time), and these costs are directly imposed by subtracting from the experimental earnings of subjects who decide to vote rather than abstain in the laboratory election. One party is the majority (it has more supporters) and the other the minority, but the majority party can lose if majority party supporters turn out in fewer numbers than minority party supporters.
The result is obtained by comparing the baseline treatment, where no communication is allowed to the two main treatments, where prior to deciding whether to vote in the election subjects have an opportunity to exchange chat messages that are visible either to all voters (public communication treatment) or only to voters from the same party (party communication treatment).
Party communication increases turnout rate more for the majority party than for the minority party. Public communication, surprisingly, can decrease turnout but the effect on the majority party is smaller than on the minority party. As a result, in both treatments communication increases the expected margin of victory for the majority party, which directly benefits that party.
This has potentially important implications for political campaigns, as the rise of social media has led to an explosion of pre-election communication between voters.
‘Communication among Voters Benefits the Majority Party’ by Thomas R Palfrey and Kirill Pogorelskiy is published in the February 2019 issue of The Economic Journal.