Constraints and Choices: Electoral Participation in Historical Perspective

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Constraints and Choices: Electoral Participation in Historical Perspective
  Constraints and Choices: ElectoralParticipation in HistoricalPerspective Adam PrzeworskiDepartment of Politics, New York University Abstract Participation in electoral politics is not a fully voluntary act.Su¤rage rules regulate who can participate, while institutionalarrangements shape the consequences of the voting act. The sec-ular increase of electoral participation in the world during thepast two centuries was largely due to extensions of su¤rage ratherthan to increased turnout of those eligible. The relation betweenvoting and electing, as manifested in institutional arrangements,had a strong e¤ect on individual decisions to vote. In the end, thevoice of the people is inescapably structured by the institutionalframeworks that relate voting to electing. 1  ”In the state of New York, legislators choose voters, rather thanvoters choosing legislators.” (Overheard on National Public Radio.) 1 Introduction Whether or not one votes is not just a matter of one’s choice. Some po-litical regimes do not give people a chance to vote at all. Other regimesforce individuals to participate in what they call ”elections” althoughno one is selected as their result. But even systems of representativegovernment always restrict the right to vote to some segments of thepopulation, using as criteria national citizenship, property, income, lit-eracy, gender, ethnicity, religion, or age.Clearly, the choice whether or not to vote can be exercised onlyby those who are given this choice. Moreover, an entire panoply of institutional rules shapes the meaning and the consequences of one’svote, thus a¤ecting incentives and disincentives to participate. Even if those who vote are ”participating,” they are not doing the same underdi¤erent political and institutional conditions. To ”participate” is totake part in something that is prior to individual decisions. Voting is notthe same as electing: the consequences of one’s vote for the selection of one’s rulers depend on the institutional, as well as ideational, frameworkwithin which one votes.2  The realm of individual choice is thus delimited by barriers inde-pendent of one’s will. These barriers are constructed by the politicallypowerful, whether these had usurped political power or were selectedunder the extant rules. The masses of potential voters can exercise thechoice whether or not to participate only within these barriers.If we think in quantitative terms of electoral participation as the ratioof actual voters to the population, 1 with an important caveat spelled outin the Appendix, we can decompose it by the following tautology:  participation   voters population  =  eligible population    voterseligible;  (1)where the entire tautology is conditional on an election occurringat all. ”Participation” is then the ratio of voters to the population,”eligibility” is the ratio of the number of people legally quali…ed to voteto the population, while ”turnout” is the ratio of actual to the eligiblevoters. In this language,  participation  =  eligibility  turnout:  (2)This tautology underlies the organization of what follows. The datacover most, but by no means all, national legislative elections that oc- 1 Using the total population as the base introduces a bias due to the ageing of thepopulation. Data on age composition, however, are scarce. 3  curred in the world between 1788 and 2000. 2 Section 2 presents a brief history of su¤rage quali…cations and of long-term patterns of eligibility.Section 3 uses information about eligibility to decompose the growth of participation into its components, showing that throughout most of mod-ern history increases in participation were due to extensions of su¤rage,rather than to higher turnout among those quali…ed to vote. Section 4asks what it is that individuals ”participated” in at di¤erent times indi¤erent countries. Section 5 shows that even when individuals had achoice of voting or not voting, their participation re‡ected the function of this act as manifested in the institutional arrangements. Finally, Section6 summarizes …ndings by other researchers concerning recent patternsof participation, highlighting the deviant case of the United States. Aconclusion follows.Before proceeding, a brief historical background is useful. Few peo-ple voted in the middle of the eighteenth century. Even where they wereformally supposed to be elected, public o¢ces were routinely inherited or…lled by appointments. Nobles participated in estate bodies as a matterof inheritance; the clergy was represented by bishops; towns deputized 2 One can never be certain that all elections are counted. While we consulted vari-ous collections of electoral data and read through histories of particular countries, wecannot be certain that some elections did not escape historians’ attention. Moreover,data on participation are available for only 2,093 elections, on eligibility for 1,832elections, and on turnout for 1,627 elections of the total of 3,405 years in which atleast one legislative election is known to have occurred. The numbers of observationsin particular analyses vary according to the availability of other information. 4  their o¢cials. Peasants and burgers were elected to their respectivechambers in Sweden; deputies to the national parliament were electedby the Hungarian and Polish gentry at local meetings; some of the  Ca-bildo  seats were elective in Latin America. Yet only Great Britain andsome British American colonies enjoyed fully elective lower houses of leg-islatures before 1788, when the …rst national Congress was elected in thenewly formed United States of America. Revolutionary France and theshort-lived Republic of Batavia (Netherlands) were the only countries to join this list before 1800. Spain experienced the …rst legislative electionin 1813, 3 Norway in 1814, Portugal in 1820, and the newly independentGreece in 1823. At least eight new Latin American countries joined thislist between 1821 and 1830, 4 while Belgium and Luxembourg followedin 1831. The revolutionary years of 1848-9 expanded this list by sevennew entrants. With four Latin American countries holding …rst legisla-tive elections in the meantime, by 1850 at least thirty-one independent 3 I do not count the election to the Cádiz Constituent Assembly, since mostprovinces of occupied Spain were represented by people who happenned to be presentin Cádiz as ” supplentes. ” Moreover, it was not clear whether this Cortes was a pureconstituent assembly or had ordinary legislative powers. 4 The actual number is almost certainly larger. While we do not have a record forlegislative elections in several Latin American countries, we know that they held pres-idential elections and that presidents were indirectly elected by legislatures. Ecuadorheld a presidential election in 1830 and Nicaragua 1825, but we have no record of legislative elections. In turn, legislative elections may have occurred before 1830 inEl Salvador which held …rst presidential election in 1824 (we can date the …rst leg-islative election only to 1842), and Peru which had a presidential election in 1814(but we have a record for legislative elections only as of 1845).Note that elections to constituent assemblies that were not intended to have ordi-nary legislative powers are not counted here (See Codebook). 5
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