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Analysis We had record low turnout in these elections - what does it mean?

Dr Adrian Kavanagh looks at the turnout trends in Ireland’s elections over the past few years.

AMIDST ALL THE drama of the election counts, one of the main trends to emerge that did not get the attention it warranted was the fact that these elections marked a record low in terms of voter turnout levels at local election contests.

The national turnout level for the County and City Council elections was 49.4% and this marked the first time in the history of the State that more than half of the registered voters failed to turn out to vote in a local election contest, although this admittedly marked only a marginal decline on the 50.2% turnout level for the 2019 elections (Figure 1).

Indeed, why should it matter? Ultimately, turnout levels say a lot about the strength of democracy in a state, and very low turnout levels can weaken the sense of legitimacy and representativeness that is invested in governments.

But turnout variations, if accompanying very low turnout levels, can result in biases in terms of representation and policy outcomes; if specific demographic, ethnic and class groups are less likely to turn out than others are, they will, in turn, be under-represented when it comes to the people who are elected to European, national and local governments and the decisions that are taken here. 

Screenshot 2024-06-14 at 07.48.08 Figure 1: Voter turnout levels at local election contests in the Republic of Ireland, 1945-2024

I have been interested in voter turnout since I commenced a PhD in Geography way back in 1999, in the wake of what was then a record low turnout at the local elections in 1999. What was striking about the 1999 election was not just the very low national turnout level, but the extent of the variations in turnout levels across the State.

Despite the very low national level, turnout rates in parts of rural Ireland (in particular, parts of Leitrim, Roscommon, Tipperary, West Cork, and Kerry) remained high – constituency level turnouts in some of these areas in the high seventies, with even higher levels observed at a more local level. These trends were replicated three years later, which saw a record low general election turnout level at the 2002 election. 

Screenshot 2024-06-14 at 07.56.22 Figure 2: A detailed geographical study of voter turnout levels in the Republic of Ireland at the 2002 General Election

For fun (this is what I do for fun), I analysed the turnout trends for that 2002 election in detail, working through all the registers used for that election, counting and analysing almost three million pieces of individual turnout data, with the help for a few months from two luckless Maynooth Geography student interns, Catríona Duffy and Cormac Walsh.

This turnout analysis found that the extent of rural-urban turnout variations was even starker when studied at a finer level of geographical detail (Figure 2). Despite the overall low turnout nationally, turnout levels in several rural areas were above the eighty per cent level, while very low turnout levels were recorded in the more urban parts of the state, with the turnout map effectively acting as an interesting means of indicating the extent of each city’s commuter belt at that point in time (including Derry City, as evident in the lower turnout in parts of the Inishowen peninsula).

The lowest turnouts were recorded in the more socially disadvantaged urban areas, with very low turnouts recorded in the 1999 and 2002 elections in North Clondalkin, Cherry Orchard and West Tallaght, for instance, but the lowest turnouts of all were to be observed in the inner city areas, and particularly the Dublin Inner City. 

Screenshot 2024-06-14 at 08.00.13 Figure 3: Factors that are associated with low voter turnout areas in political science and electoral geography research.

The low voter turnout areas in 2002 were associated with some, or most, of the factors that academics associate with low voter turnout, as illustrated above (Figure 3). The quality of the electoral register back then, as is very much the case today, was another factor. Further research by me, based on an electoral division-level comparison of the Valid Adult Population level (based on the 2002 Census) and the number of people on the register, found strong evidence of register inaccuracies (Figures 4a and 4b). 

Screenshot 2024-06-14 at 08.03.01 Figures 4a and 4b: Levels of electoral register in accuracy in the Republic of Ireland and the Dublin region at the 2002 General Election .

Screenshot 2024-06-14 at 08.03.41 Figures 4a and 4b: Levels of electoral register in accuracy in the Republic of Ireland and the Dublin region at the 2002 General Election.

However, this research found that register inaccuracies were not causing the geographical variations in turnout levels but dampening the extent of these. There were too many people on the electoral register in high turnout areas in rural Ireland (as well as the higher turnout areas in Dublin), suggesting that the “real” turnout levels in places like Leitrim and north-west Cork were even higher than the levels recorded for these. By contrast, there were too few people on the register in very low turnout areas in Dublin, such as the areas of new housing in Blanchardstown and South Lucan, but particularly the Dublin Inner City.

Turnout trends

So did turnout levels remain low for the following few decades? Well, no and yes. Turnout levels improved over the following decade and a half, but these increases were mainly focused on Dublin and the more urban areas. Even at this weekend’s low turnout contests, turnout levels in Dublin were over four percentage points higher than they were in the low turnout 1999 contest.

Turnout levels in working class parts of Dublin improved during the 2000s and 2010s, narrowing the class differential in turnout that characterised the low turnout in the 1999 and 2002 contests. Relatively high turnouts have been seen in places like Ballyfermot and North Clondalkin for certain, but not all, election contests, such as the 2014 Local Elections and the 2020 General Election, and these improved turnout levels in working class areas have helped to change the political landscape over this period.

Efforts made to clean up the electoral register ahead of the 2007 General Election did lead to a higher turnout level at that contest, while the concern over the low turnout levels in socially disadvantaged areas saw the introduction of voter education programmes in these areas by voluntary groups, such as the Vincentian Partnership for Justice. Increased levels of political mobilisation in these areas by Sinn Féin and other left-wing parties and candidates also helped to improve turnouts there. 

However, turnout levels in rural Ireland have fallen during the 2000s. In 1999 the constituency with the highest turnout level was Dromahaire (76.5%) and this was ten per cent higher than the highest constituency turnout recorded for the 2024 elections, the 66.5% turnout level for Manorhamilton. For local election contests, the drop in turnout levels may be potentially linked to the overall reduction in local representation levels in these areas, following the decision to abolish town councils and reduce councillor numbers in most County Councils ahead of the 2014 Local Elections.

Local election constituencies are now larger (in some cases confusing voters, who now wonder why they are being asked to vote for “candidates from the other side of the county”) and there has been a reduction in the number of candidates that voters personally know, as a result. There is also a sense in rural Ireland that politics is increasingly being dominated by Dublin and urban areas, far removed from the days of Albert Reynolds’ “Country and Western” government, when rural concerns were perceived to have been given greater emphasis. While register inaccuracies are no doubt playing a role here, there is also growing evidence of greater levels of rural disengagement from politics, as found in the PhD research done by William Durkan of the Department of Geography in UCC (and a recently elected councillor for the Clane electoral area).

How to improve turnout

What can be done? One obvious solution would be to work on improving the quality of the electoral register, but that is easier said than done. There is a job of work to be done with the administration of the register. Like a secret society, it can be hard to get onto the electoral register, but sometimes harder to get off it when you move house. The establishment of the Electoral Commission in January of last year may help in this regard, but it will take time and any appetite for a rigorous overhaul of the register ahead of the general election needs to be sated by concerns that such an overhaul is always likely to leave thousands of people without a vote on Election Day.

Efforts to iron out the level of register inaccuracies may need to be put on hold until after the general election to avoid accidentally deleting people from the register ahead of this, but these efforts need to be made. For the sake of democracy, we also should consider portraying politics and the work of politicians in a more positive light, instead of always fixating on the negative aspects. Claims that “politicians are all the same” and “politicians are lazy” need to be challenged (they’re not all the same and there are very few lazy politicians (otherwise they’d be voted out at the next election)), otherwise it will reduce motivation levels in terms of whether people decide to vote, or not, but also the willingness of people to put themselves forward as election candidates. 

The causes of low voter turnout are many and complex and solutions require big efforts to be made by different groups. The very low voter turnout levels of 1999 and 2002 were improved in the 2000s and 2010s, but this did not happen by accident and instead required a big effort on the part of electoral administrators, politicians and voluntary groups.

A similar, if not more intense, effort is required now to ensure we never again see a local election contest in which over half of the registered voters fail to vote. The question remains, however: is there enough motivation to address the issue of low voter turnout, or not?  The general sense of apathy over the weekend towards the growing problem of voter apathy leads me to suspect the latter, but I hope I will be proven wrong. 

Dr Adrian Kavanagh is a lecturer in the Maynooth University Department of Geography. His main research interests focus on the Geography of Elections, with particular reference to the Republic of Ireland. 

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