One might think that having access to unlimited information via the power of the internet would lead to well-informed voters, who will then go to the polls full of information and implored to have their say in an election. Research however, suggests that the opposite is true.

Successful democracy is underpinned by the ability of people to have their say; therefore, voter turnout is fundamental to sustaining the legitimacy of the democratic process2. In the UK, however, turnout has been steadily declining over time, with the worst turnout since 1945 displayed in 2001 at just 59.4%. Therefore it is important to explore the potential reasons behind this decline.

Recent research by Business School Professor Tommaso Valletti, and colleagues Alessandro Gavazza from the London School of Economics and Mattia Nardotto from the University of Cologne, investigates how internet penetration (and through it, voter information) shapes both election outcomes and public policy. Using data outlining the number of local broadband subscribers in each node of British Telecom’s local distribution network, they were able to investigate how the dramatic growth of internet in the UK has affected voter behaviours in local constituencies.*

Valletti et al found that increased internet access decreases voter turnout, as well as increasing the advantage of major parties. This research was focused on local government elections in the UK, because of the richness of data that can be obtained locally, but lines up with similar research on national elections in other countries, showing that internet access actually reduces voter turnout.

Why is this the case? Several ideas have been raised including that access to high volumes of entertainment through broadband internet provides a distraction from the election coverage abundant in more traditional media.

According to the Oxford Internet Survey1, over two thirds of all British households have access to the internet, and 56 percent accessed it through broadband. Only 28 percent of those however, reported reading a newspaper online, and only 11 percent reported using the internet to look for information about an MP, local councillor or politician. The internet has increased the availability of many forms of entertainment (such as movies, games and social media), but this has potentially tempted individuals away from news and from traditional media.3

Valletti et al found that a 10% increase in internet penetration effectively decreases voter turnout by roughly 3.5%, a big problem when voter turnout is so small in the first place. Secondly, and worryingly, this negative effect comes mostly from the lack of political participation among the lower socio-economic demographic: more affluent and highly educated people still turn up to vote when they have access to the internet, while it is seemingly the less-advantaged people that don’t participate in elections.

Interestingly, Valletti et al’s research went a step further, looking at how it also affects the eventual policies that are implemented by the incoming government, and found that local government expenditures (in particular expenditures on social services) and taxes are lower in areas with greater broadband penetration.

The research of Valletti et al seems to confirm the “Only the Poor Get Poorer Hypothesis”: highly educated and ‘richer’ people use the internet to get information and vote, while less educated and ‘poorer’ people use the internet mainly for entertainment, become less politically involved, and vote less. As a response to this, politicians then implement policies more in favour of highly educated and richer people who are more influential in the democratic process.

The findings of this research highlight the effects of the media on electoral politics, and also how this effect may exacerbate existing socio-economic factors affecting voter turnout. They suggest that internet availability has displaced more traditional media with a richer political content (i.e. newspapers), and raises questions regarding the relationship between access to and subsequent use of voter information and the eventuating political outcomes. Does it make sense to have policies to decrease the “digital divide”, bringing internet broadband to everybody, if this can actually cause a “political divide” between the rich and the poor?

The questions we need to ask ourselves are: what can we do about it? And should we do something about it?

Compulsory voting, online voting – the options are there, but the merits and challenges are much debated. What are your thoughts? Add your comments below.

Full paper available from Professor Tommaso Valletti
Valletti, Gavazza & Nardotto (2015) ‘Internet and Politics: Evidence from UK Local Elections and Local Government Policies’.

*It is important to note that it is possible that some unobservable demographic characteristics (such as income and education) could be correlated with both internet penetration and election outcomes, as well. To resolve these potential endogeneity concerns, Valletti et al allowed for these characteristics using a model based on the topology of the internet infrastructure and its cost structure.

References:

  1. Dutton, W. H., and E. J. Helsper (2009): The Internet in Britain: 2009. Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.
  2. Lijphart, A. (1997): “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma,” American Political Science Review, pp. 1–14.
  3. Putnam, R. D. (2000): Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster, New York.

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