Investigating voter turnout in three Nordic countries

Published: 10 Dec 2014

Author: Celia Davies
Investigating voter turnout in three Nordic countries

Celia Davies, an associate editor from Edinburgh, was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research voter turnout in Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. Her objective was to generate policy recommendations for the UK, where voter turnout has been dropping for decades.

Across these three countries – chosen for having extremely high levels of voter turnout - Celia met with a range of stakeholders, including government officials, municipal authorities, academics, political journalists, and civil society representatives.

A striking feature of all three countries was the level of public commitment to monitoring and promoting voter turnout, seeking innovative ways to engage with younger voters and tracking voting patterns. This is borne out, for instance, in the number of multi-stakeholder initiatives dedicated to promoting youth turnout, with academics, government ministries, and municipalities joining forces (and budgets) to experiment with new ways of reaching young voters.

Declining voter turnout is a pan-European phenomenon; even these three countries with their enviably high levels of electoral engagement are worried, especially because the decline is steepest among young voters. This is especially true in Iceland, where public trust in the government plummeted following the 2008 financial crash. The major barrier for improving voter turnout in the UK is the fact that registration is not automatic (as it is in Denmark, Sweden and Iceland).

While in the short to medium term we can’t adopt some of the more fundamental structural mechanisms – notably automatic voter registration – there are certainly transferrable models for improving political engagement among young people.

“For instance, mock elections in schools to coincide with real elections have been a feature of the Danish school system for years; Sweden is now rolling out a similar programme, run by student volunteers. Other initiatives include putting polling stations in community hubs such as train stations, and introducing mobile polling booths,” said Celia.

Electoral engagement in the UK received a major boost through the Scottish independence referendum. At 84.6%, turnout was at a very similar level to the Nordic countries, and some political parties experienced an immediate and dramatic increase in membership. This has the potential to be a very fertile landscape for thinking more creatively about voter engagement.

Celia will be presenting to key UK stakeholders in the following months, including the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, Electoral Reform Society, and party-based organisations.

Contact Celia: daviescelia@gmail.com