In the Ottawa Citizen, Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute assures us that record-low voter turnout is nothing to worry about. In fact, he argues, it’s a sign of social cohesion:
Contrary to the folklore of democratic health, low turnout can signal social solidarity, reflect real civic virtue, and even make democracy work better.
We humans are adversarial beings, easily riled by us-versus-them conflict. (Even Canadians!) Democratic politics is a wonderful way to peacefully channel social antagonism into ritual symbolic warfare…
Lower levels of turnout may suggest that voters actually trust each other more — that fewer feel an urgent need to vote defensively, to guard against competing interests or ideologies. Is it really all that bad if a broad swath of voters, relatively happy with the status quo, sit it out from a decided lack of pique?
Of course, there’s something to this argument in certain cases. Have a look at some instances of very high voter turnout — the 1973 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, for example. Intergroup conflict and siege mentalities can certainly drive people to the ballot box. And in the US, there’s some evidence that in some races, voter turnout is being driven by mobilizing polarized bases.
But is low turnout necessarily an indicator of high trust in one another?
Have a look at this diagram, from research conducted by Robert Boeckmann and Tom Tyler:
What this shows is that there is a significant link between generalized trust (people’s overall trust in one another) and political engagement (voting).
The overall story here is that when civic engagement is high (when people socialize with neighbours, read local news, and discuss local issues with their neighbours and community leaders), it builds a sense that those around us are generally trustworthy. And when we see our fellow citizens as trustworthy, we tend to do the civic-minded thing and show up to the ballot box.
So, despite Wilkinson’s optimism, I don’t buy the idea that low turnout signals is a signal of a shiny, happy, trusting polity.