The 2017 French Legislative Election: Why Was Voter Turnout So Low and What Can Be Done About It?

by Filip Kostelka, University of Montreal and Sciences Po, Paris

Note: French version is here. / Version en français se trouve ici. / 
This text was published in French as an op-ed  in the journal Le Monde. 


The most striking outcome of the first round of the 2017 election to the French National Assembly is that less than half of the registered voters came to the polls. The participation rate of 48.7 %, down by 8.5 percentage points from the last election in 2012, is the lowest in the history of the French legislative contests since 1945. Two factors are likely to have contributed to this particularly weak participation rate. The first and obvious factor is the recent transformation of the French party system: the collapse of the traditional parties on the centre left and centre right; the far right’s loss of credibility in the preceding presidential election; and the centrist profile of the anticipated winner, unlikely to generate strong positive or negative mobilization in the electorate.

Yet, there is another important culprit: high election frequency. Sunday’s election was the third round of voting in 2017 after two rounds of presidential elections. More generally, in the last three years, a French citizen could vote – depending on party competition in his or her electoral district – in up to 9 contests: municipal elections (2014, 2 rounds), European Parliament elections (2014), departmental elections (2015, 2 rounds), regional elections (2015, 2 rounds), and presidential elections (2017, 2 rounds). On top of that, French voters could also participate in two rounds of open presidential primaries organized in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections by the main centre-right and centre-left parties as well as the Greens. This proliferation of elections is unprecedented in the French electoral history. Just a few decades ago, the number of participatory demands on French citizens was substantially lower. For instance, in the three years preceding the legislative election of 1978, there were at maximum 4 opportunities to vote: departmental elections (1976, 2 rounds but only half of the electorate was eligible to vote) and municipal elections (1977, 2 rounds).

Figure 1: Voter Turnout in the First Round of the French Legislative Elections since 1958

As a matter of fact, election frequency in France has strongly increased since the late 1970s. This is due to a host of institutional reforms: the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament (1979), decentralization and the introduction of regional elections (1986), and the reduction of the presidential mandate from 7 to 5 years (2002). In addition, before last Sunday’s election, new territorial reforms (of 2010 and 2013) resulted in a temporary reduction of the term of the regional and some departmental representatives from 6 to 5 and 4 years respectively. Finally, mainstream French political parties have newly held open primaries before presidential elections: the centre left since 2012 and the centre right since 2017. This steep rise in election frequency coincides with the decline in voter turnout in the French legislative elections, which started in the early 1980s and reached its peak on Sunday (see Figure 1).

Political science literature shows that high election frequency depresses voter turnout through several channels, affecting both citizens’ attitudes and political parties’ mobilization capacities. In my research, I found support for the negative effect of election frequency on voter turnout in two very different contexts. First, in my PhD dissertation defended at Sciences Po, Paris in 2015, I demonstrate that election frequency substantively contributes to the strong decline in voter turnout that has been observed in post-communist democracies since the 1990s. Second, in a paper presented at the 2017 Canadian Political Science Association meeting, my co-author Alexander Wüttke (University of Manheim) and I observe a robust relationship between election frequency and voter turnout in Canada and Germany. The more frequent elections are the lower voter turnout in every single election, particularly in less important elections.

As low voter tumour is normatively undesirable, French policy-makers should take lessons from other countries that record (much) higher voting rates. The best example is Sweden, one of the rare Western democracies in which voter turnout even increased since the early 1990s. Swedes typically vote twice every four years as all elections but those to the European parliament are held simultaneously. Of course, the simultaneity of different election types entails the risk of contamination (i.e. the political developments in one electoral arena may affect the results in another arena). Nonetheless, an abstention rate of more than 50 % is perhaps worse than any realistic degree of contamination.

Combining various types of electoral contests could achieve a Pareto-optimum number of elections in terms of high turnout and low contamination effects across different electoral arenas. In the French context, it seems logical to combine presidential and legislative elections on the one hand; and municipal, departmental, and regional elections on the other. This would boost voter turnout not only because of lower election frequency but also because the less important election type (e.g. legislative elections) would benefit from the mobilization effect of the more important type (e.g. presidential elections). Such a measure would probably not solve the issue of the decline in voter turnout altogether but it could largely offset the negative trend.

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  1. Filip Kostelka
    Posted June 13, 2017 at 2:18 PM | Permalink

    There may be an additional effect, indeed. However, I find difficult to disentangle it from the election frequency argument. Moreover, the “tying-up” cannot explain the decline between 1978 and 1993 . In contrast, the increase in 1986 can be due to the fact that very few other elections preceded the vote (the last election was the European one in 1984). And, of course, PR was used (whose positive effect on voter turnout is questionnable but not impossible).

  2. Hanspeter Kriesi
    Posted June 13, 2017 at 1:42 AM | Permalink

    there is another factor, an institutional one: the timing of the elections. In the past, the turnout always rose, when presidential and legislative elections were not held immediately after each other (e.g. in 1986), while it declined, when this was the case (e.g. in 1988). Since 2002, the two elections are tied to each other, one following upon the other one, and since then, there is only a secular decline in participation.