I usually vote but I didn’t vote this time


Alexandre Morin-Chassé, Université de Montréal

Damien Bol, King’s College London

The goal of our research project is to improve the quality of post-election survey data on electoral turnout by reducing abstainers’ tendency to lie. Usually, the turnout reported in post-election surveys is much higher than in reality, and this is partly due to abstainers pretending that they have voted. Why do they lie? In every society, there exist social norms that are widely shared by the population. Also, in many countries, voting at elections is the norm and it is common to speak of voting as a duty to fulfil in order to be a good citizen. Because this norm exists and people are aware of it, some abstainers prefer to lie than to report a behaviour that is perceived as socially irresponsible.

Previous research has shown that some people lie even when they complete an online questionnaire, a context where there is no interaction with the interviewer and no risk of being judged. Another psychological mechanism is at play here: the desire to preserve self-esteem. Some of the abstainers share the social norm that voting is a duty. They lie because they prefer to avoid the discomfort they would feel when admitting that they derogate from a norm they endorse.

One way to reduce the abstainers’ tendency to lie is to frame the turnout question in a way that allows these abstainers to claim that they adhere to the norm even if they did not vote. Abstainers who accept the social norm can save face even if they report their true voting behaviour. To test the efficacy of this framing, it is possible to run a survey experiment during which half of respondents are randomly assigned to the classic “yes/no” turnout question, while the other half is presented with a new question. If the new question shows a reported turnout that is closer to the actual turnout, it is presumed that the new version succeeded in reducing lies and thus produces more accurate survey answers. Various studies conducted in the United States have tested which question best succeeds in reducing abstainers’ tendency to lie. Table 1 presents the “classic” and the “face-saving” turnout question wordings.

Table 1. Question wording

[Comment preamble]

In each election we find that a lot of people were not able to vote because they were not registered, they were sick, or they did not have time.

[Standard yes/no voting question]


Were you personally able to vote in this election?

1. Yes

2. No

9. Don’t know/Prefer not to answer

[Face-saving voting question]


Which of the following statements best describes you?

1. I did not vote in the election

2. I thought about voting this time but didn’t

3. I usually vote but didn’t this time

4. I am sure I voted in the election

9. Don’t know/prefer not to answer

Results from the United States suggest that including face-saving response items in surveys following national elections can reduce reported turnout by a range of 4 to 8 percentage points. However, we do not know whether this new version of the turnout question is also efficient in other countries and whether face-saving response items can also reduce abstainers’ tendency to lie in elections at other levels of government, such as local, regional, or European Elections. Our research aims to fill this gap by analysing 19 surveys experiments in post-election surveys conducted in Canada, France, Spain, Switzerland and Germany for the Making Electoral Democracy Work project.

Figure 1 presents results for each of these 19 survey experiments. The top and the left margins identify the country and the level of the election; the bars represent the difference in percentage points between the turnout measured in the group exposed to the yes/no question and the one measured in the group exposed to the face-saving version.

Figure 1. Treatment effects of the inclusion of face-saving response options on reported turnout


Note: The error spikes represent the 95% and 99% confidence intervals.

In 11 out of 19 surveys, the inclusion of face-saving response items significantly reduced the reported turnout; in 4 other surveys, the effect goes in the expected negative direction, even if it does not reach conventional levels of statistical significance. Finally, in 4 other surveys, the new question produced a turnout level that is virtually identical to the one produced by the traditional yes/no question. When we combine the 19 datasets into a single large one we find that the face-saving question reduces reported turnout by 7.6 percentage points (p<0.001, N=15,185).

Reference: Morin-Chassé, Alexandre, Damien Bol, Laura Stephenson and Simon Labbé St-Vincent. “How to survey about electoral turnout? The efficacy of the face-saving response items in nineteen different contexts.” Political Science Research Methods (accessible online ahead of print). http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/psrm.2016.31

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