Turnout in the elections to the Constitutional Assembly was 36.77%. In contrast, the average turnout in parliamentary elections is about 87% and 81% in local elections. In this context, turnout in the election may seem almost shockingly low. However, comparing regular parliamentary and local elections with the elections to the constitutional assembly is also a bit absurd. Frankly, all things considered, I think 36.77% turnout is pretty good.
First, it was an election that revolved around fairly abstract concepts. I think it is fair to say that most of the candidates campaigned on platforms based on constitutional amendments but most voters are unlikely to have strong preferences over types of institutional arrangement, e.g., different types of electoral institutions or whether ministers are allowed to sit in parliament. Moreover, most of the candidates don’t appear to have gone very far in providing reasons why certain institutional arrangements are preferable to others. This is not to say that constitutions don’t matter a great deal. They do. But the average voter is not likely to fully understand the implications of adopting a particular set of institutions.
Second, it was not clear how important the Constitutional Assembly is – any amendment proposed by the Constitutional Assembly must be ratified twice by parliament with an election held in the interim. In addition, parliament is not bound to vote on the Constitutional Assembly’s proposal – it may well choose to amend the proposal.
Third, voters faced an overwhelming number of candidates. Making an informed decision about who to vote for was a monumental task. Doing so required not only studying the platforms of over 500 candidates but also making up one’s mind about what types of institutional changes are desirable. Moreover, the great majority of the candidates were unknown quantities. Contrast that with parliamentary elections in which most candidates have a track record in politics and, moreover, run as the candidates of parties who have relatively clearly defined policy platforms. The fact that parties provide an important function in structuring politics is often forgotten. Political parties aggregate policy options into coherent policy programs that make party labels useful cues for voters. Given the frequent discussions about reforming the electoral system to allow voters to express preferences over candidates, it might be worth thinking about to what extent that would undermine this role of the parties and whether it might have negative effects on political participation. While disliking the power of parties appears to be in vogue these days in Iceland, let’s not forget that life without parties (or with weak parties) may not be that rosy.
In the face of the uncertainty and limited understanding of the effects of political institutions, it seems that the decision to abstain may have been the rational decision for many voters – a phenomenon known as the “swing voter’s curse”. Even voters that have an (ex ante) preference over the candidates may be better of abstaining in order to leave it to better informed voters to determine the outcome of the election. See here for an intuitive discussion of the swing voter’s curse (for a formal proof, see Feddersen and Pesendorfer, American Economic Review 86: 3, 408-424).
A number of commentators have argued that the electoral system may have been to blame – that it was to complicated for voters. I don’t find that a plausible explanation. Explaining exactly how seats are allocated is fairly complicated compared to many electoral systems but in terms explaining to voters what they are supposed to do, it is actually pretty simple: “Rank the x number of candidates that you like the most”. If the electoral system is to blame, it must be the case that there is an alternative electoral system that would have generated a higher turnout. I fail to see what kind of electoral system that does not allow for slates of candidates, would have lead to a very different outcome. The only possibility that I see would have been by adopting an electoral system that divides the country into multiple districts, which would have reduced the number of candidates that each voter would have had to consider.
It is unfortunate that more people didn’t turn out to vote as the low turnout can be interpreted as weakening the mandate of the Constitutional Assembly. I’m not sure it should be. Given the conditions and the complexity of the issues, it strikes me that participation by over one-third of all voters is quite significant. Only a slightly larger proportion (about 48%) took part in the referendum on the union with Denmark in 1918, in which Iceland became a sovereign state.
p.s. I hypothesized above that increasing the personal vote might reduce voter turnout – after posting the above, I checked my email and found the table of contents for the latest issue of Electoral Studies, which incidentally contains an article testing this hypothesis. Turns out that I was right – the personal vote reduces turnout (Joseph Robbins, The personal vote and turnout, Electoral Studies 39:4, 661-672)