CCC Blog - Local Turnout in Europe

Local Turnout in Europe: The Roots of Municipal Politics

Published: 20 March 2024

Silvia Bolgherini, Selena Grimaldi, Aldo Paparo

Between Tradition and Innovation

Although electoral participation is a traditional topic in political science, there is still a lack of large-scale comparative research on voter turnout in municipal elections. Consequently, the understanding of local electoral participation has been limited and not easily generalizable. Our book addresses this specific gap by proposing a large-scale comparison (18 European Countries and over 70,000 municipalities) analyzed in an innovative way. In other words, our research introduces a new theoretical framework leading to the adoption of innovative methodological approaches.

From a theoretical standpoint, we posit the multilevel nature of municipal turnout and embed our analytical framework within the multilevel congruence theory. Methodologically, municipal elections are compared with national elections, which serves as benchmark for facilitating cross-national comparisons. Thus, we focus on turnout variation between municipal and national levels, rather than relying solely on raw rates. This approach goes beyond the use of aggregate average data, providing a much more nuanced inspection of turnout variations.

Bridging Local and National Perspectives

Another significant innovation of our book is successfully demonstrating how two previously separate approaches to local voting can be effectively bridged. On the one hand, the lower-rank perspective suggests a clear connection with the second-order election theory, positing that local electoral outcomes are primarily influenced by the more powerful national level. According to this perspective, local turnout determinants are conceived as mirroring the logic of the nationalization of the vote. On the other hand, the different-kind approach emphasizes the unique features and mechanisms inherent to local politics.  From this perspective, the localization of the vote (especially the size of municipalities) prevails over national determinants. Our new theoretical framework challenges this traditional dichotomy by showing that these approaches are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary. We demonstrate that many drivers are utilized by both approaches, although hypothesizing different mechanisms, and we illustrate how factors operating at both local and national levels intersect to shape municipal voter turnout. In essence, our work offers a more comprehensive understanding of contemporary democratic processes and of the interplay between national and local dynamics.

The Main Findings: Something New, Something Old, Something Crucial

Overall, our book sheds light on the determinants of higher or lower participation rates in municipal elections across the European continent through a robust, comparative, and rigorous empirical investigation. Our study reveals that turnout rates in Europe at the local level largely depend on municipal size and urbanization. Namely, our research reaffirms the importance of these core variables, but it also uncovers and addresses an ambiguity related to size and urbanization by highlighting that they are distinct dimensions with separate and independent effects on municipal turnout. For instance, we show that, once considered separately, the explicative role of urbanization over municipal turnout in Europe is larger than that of municipal size. Moreover, by looking at size and urbanization separately, we can detect how in some countries a remarkable impact of both variables on local turnout emerges, while in other countries only the degree of urbanization matters for turnout level at municipal elections and its variation compared to the national level.

Furthermore, certain key variables suggested by the lower-rank approach, such as the state of national democracy and the national economy, show significant effects on local turnout, operating differently in Western and Eastern Europe. In the West, poor economies and stronger democracies are associated with higher municipal turnout, in the East higher turnout is found where the economy is strong or national democracy is weaker. Additionally, timing variables associated with the lower-rank approach (such as the placement of municipal elections within the national electoral cycle or the simultaneity of municipal elections for a larger fraction of municipalities) are not significant predictors of local turnout. However, some old adages are corroborated: for instance, our analysis confirms that turnout in municipal elections tends to be lower than in national elections, supporting a cornerstone hypothesis of the second-order elections theory.

Finally, our work reveals that the decisiveness of municipal elections clearly boosts local turnout across Europe. Consequently, our crucial takeaway point is that direct mayoral elections, which give voters a greater say in municipal politics, are fundamental to stimulating active participation in local politics.

In an era marked by a retrenchment of democratic systems, the importance of municipal politics grows ever more pronounced. Despite recurring setbacks in national democratic arenas, municipal governance often demonstrates greater resilience, as evidenced by stable levels of voter turnout (in contrast to the decline seen at national level) and stronger trust in local institutions, among other factors. This resilience underscores the crucial need to promote direct citizen engagement in municipal decision-making processes. In this regard, the book offers valuable insights to local and national policymakers indicating avenues for appropriate policy innovations.

For more information, please refer to the authors’ book, Local Electoral Participation in Europe: The Roots of Municipal Politics, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Silvia Bolgherini is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Perugia (Italy).

Selena Grimaldi is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Macerata (Italy).

Aldo Paparo is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Florence (Italy).