More Choices More Voices?

By Nikko Bilitza
Clocks and Clouds
2017, Vol. 7 No. 2 | pg. 1/1


The relationship between party system fragmentation and voter turnout is not entirely understood in contemporary political science literature. It is often assumed that party system fragmentation is a primary driver of proportional representation's tendency to produce higher turnout, however its effects on turnout across electoral systems has been sparsely studied. This paper seeks to assess this relationship through a sample study of 17 countries with both majoritarian and proportional electoral studies. The study finds that increased party system fragmentation increases voter turnout in countries with proportional electoral systems while decreasing turnout in countries with majoritarian electoral systems.


Within political science the relationship between increased party system fragmentation and proportional representation is well known. Many political scientists contend that the increased party system fragmentation that proportional representation is associated with partly drives this trend by offering more options and increasing the amount of parties mobilizing voter (Taagepera et al. 2013). Despite the frequency of this claim, not as much has been written about the effect of simply more party system fragmentation across both proportional representation countries and majoritarian countries. If more electoral parties are contending an election, are more voters driven to turnout for their favorite choice niche party and are voters more mobilized due to an increased amount of parties trying to turnout their base? In this study I set out to analyze if increased party system fragmentation leads to increased voter turnout in both majoritarian and proportional representation countries. I hypothesize that increased amount of party system fragmentation leads to increased turnout and voter satisfaction. In my study I have found that increasing party system fragmentation increases voter turnout in proportional representation elections while decreasing voter turnout in majoritarian elections. Thus, the actual relationship between party system fragmentation and turnout is largely based off the electoral system in use.

Literature Review: Two Perspectives on the Effect of Fragmented Party Systems

There is a sizable amount of literature that asserts that proportional electoral systems are associated with increased voter turnout (Listhaug et al. 2009; Banducci et al. 1999). In his landmark work "Patterns of Democracy," Lipjhart noted that on average voters in proportional representation democracies have a much higher turnout rate than voters in majoritarian democracies (Lijphart 1999: 286). However, how and why exactly proportional representation has so consistently generated higher voter turnout has yet to be adequately explained (Blais and Aarts 2006). This is where the question of party systems enters the debate. Many studies argue that the more fragmented party system in proportional representation countries is at least part of the reason why proportional representation generally preforms so well in these metrics (Taagepera et al. 2013). Others such as Dr. Blais and Dr. Dobryznska contend that proportional representation preforms well, in spite of, not because of, its fragmented party system (Blais and Dobrzynska 2003). Thus the literature is divided into two separate schools of thought.

Confusion and Lack of Control

Much of the literature on party systems has been critical of the idea that there is a positive relationship between increased party fractionalization and percent voter turnout. Many political scientists contend that the lack of decisiveness due to inter-party negotiations about forming coalitions depresses voter turnout. Dr. Downs was the first to tackle the question of party systems and voter turnout in his pioneering work "An Economic Theory of Democracy" (1957). Dr. Downs argued that voters would not turnout to vote as much in highly fragmented party systems due to the lack of decisiveness in their vote (1957). Party systems with low fragmentation present clear choices in who will govern, while highly fragmented party systems allow politicians, more than voters, to determine who will form a government (1957). This argument was further developed by Dr. Jackman in one of the landmark studies on party systems and voter turnout, "Political Institutions and Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies" (1987). Dr. Jackman arrived at a similar conclusion as, arguing that "multi-partyism assigns elections a less decisive role in government formation, depressing turnout" (1987). Dr. Jackman also argued that, contrary to intuition, having more parties would not cause people to turn out. Rather, most of those voters would not vote because the threshold to achieve legislative representation is much more difficult to surmount in majoritarian systems and thus likely to result in the voter wasting their vote (Jackman 1987). Dr. Vowel later provided evidence of how voters' apparent frustration with multi-party elections can depress turnout. In his 2002 analysis of New Zealand's postmixed member proportional system, Dr. Vowel showed that the perceived lack of control of coalition bargaining during the post-electoral reform period decreased overall voter turnout (2002). Dr. Aarts and Dr. Thomassen echoed this sentiment critiquing fragmented party systems for "blurring the clarity of responsibility and making the sanction of elections as an instrument of accountability into a rather blunt weapon." (Aarts and Thomassen 2008).

Many studies have also argued that the sheer volume of options confuses voters and thus dampens voter turnout (Ezrow and Xezonakis 2011; Powell 2000; Brockington 2004; Huber et al. 2005). In their seminal work "Turnout in Electoral Democracies" Dr. Blais and Dr. Dobrzynska found evidence for this argument, writing that "turnout declines by 4 points when the number of parties moves from 2 to 6, but by only 2 points from 6 parties to 10 and from 10 to 15" (2003). Thus, they concluded that party system fragmentation beyond 3 parties confused voters, as well as making them less interested in the election, because the resulting government would be decided through coalition deals (Blais and Dobrzynska 2003). Furthermore, they argue that the increased voter turnout related to proportional representation is not caused by the highly fragmented party systems, but rather, in spite of the fragmentation (Blais and Dobrzynska 2003).

More Alternatives and Less Alienation

The argument for the close tie between increasing party system fragmentation and increasing voter turnout hinges primarily on the idea that more voters will turnout more due to an increased ability to find a party they strongly identify with, and increased net mobilization efforts (Taagepera et al. 2013). This perspective is best summed up by Dr. Blais and Bodet who wrote "An individual voter is more likely to find a party that expresses views similar to his or her own if there are 10 parties running in the election and actually represented in the legislature than if there are only 2" (2006). Dr. Blais and Dr. Aarts argue that more parties will result in more mobilization and especially more mobilization of niche groups that feel more effectively represented by smaller parties (2006). Although there are many studies that are critical of the idea of a positive relationship between party system fragmentation and voter turnout, there are also plenty of studies that have argued that a positive relationship does exist between parties and voter turnout. Dr. Martin and Dr. Plümper have authored one such study; in their study of multiparty systems and voter turnout they concluded that "turnout rates in multiparty systems are higher because a larger number of voters find their preferences represented by some party" (2005). Dr. Taageprera, Dr. Selb, and Dr. Grofman concluded from their study of party systems that the relationship between parties and voter turnout was curvilinear with increasing parties correlated with increasing voter turnout, though only up to a certain point (Taagepera et al. 2013). In his study of party systems, Dr. Cerpaz offers credible evidence that more fragmented party systems offer a "great menu of political choices" that leads to "more people stimulated to vote" (1990).

Several studies have shown strong evidence that party fracturing reduces a feeling of "alienation" and "indifference" to the party system which seems to indicate a potential for higher levels of engagement with politics and thus higher voter turnout (Crepaz 1990). In their study of the Canadian party system's fragmentation in the 1990s, Dr. Bittner, Dr. Matthews and Dr. Johnston found that fragmentation decreased alienation and indifference amongst Canadian voters (2007). The authors also found that increased party system fragmentation ameliorated the effect of an overall decline in turnout due to other factors (Bittner et al. 2007). Dr. Martin and Dr. Plümper found that increased party system fragmentation led to reduction in "alienation" and "indifference" in the electorate as a result of increased party choices (Martin and Plümper 2005).

Some scholars support the theory that increasing party system fragmentation positively impact voter turnout but are careful to emphasize the role of institutions and political conditions. Dr. Ezrow and Dr. Xezonakis in their study of ideological congruence party systems concluded that more party choices that are close to the median voter increases satisfaction and thus possibly also turnout (2011). In a recently published paper Dr. Boulding and Dr. Brown concluded increasing party system fracturing increased voter turnout in proportional representation systems while also decreasing voter turnout in majoritarian systems (2015). However, this clashes with several studies that found an increase in effective minor parties had a positive effect on voter turnout in majoritarian elections (Burden and Lacy 1992; Bittner et al. 2007).

For the purposes of this paper, I choose to use the "More Alternatives and Less Alienation" school of thought. The substantial amount of work on how increased parties lead to less alienation and indifference seems to indicate increased interest and engagement. Critics of the supposed confusion and opacity of fragmented party system elections fail to acknowledge that single party majority government elections fail to produce higher voter turnout than multiparty elections (Blais and Dobrzynska, 1998). There is also little evidence of mass voter confusion. In his survey of electoral systems, Farrell notes that there is only a .5 percent increase in invalid votes in multiparty systems (Farrell, 2011: 226). Furthermore, despite the body of work present, the question is far from settled. Dr. Blais, one of the foremost authors in the field wrote "The bottom line is that we have a poor understanding of the relationship between the number of parties and turnout" (Blais 2006). Thus, I find the second school of thought more compelling and deserving of further study.

Research Design

For the purposes of this paper I will be analyzing whether increasing party system fragmentation increases voter turnout. Does increasing fragmentation lead to confusion and apathy amongst voters or increased net mobilization and voter enthusiasm? I hypothesize that increased party system fragmentation will lead to increased voter turnout. I will be testing this claim by evaluating the voter turnout in high and low party system fragmentation countries. If I find higher voter turnout in my sample of high party system fragmentation countries, then my thesis will be confirmed.


For the purposes of this study I will be analyzing data from 34 countries (Table 1). I will draw on data from 17 countries with fragmented party systems and 17 countries with less fragmented party systems. The countries are then further divided up by electoral system, there are 8 countries with low party system fragmentation and 8 countries with high party system fragmentation party system with majoritarian electoral systems. I will also be analyzing data from 9 countries with proportional representation electoral systems and low party system fragmentation and 9 countries with proportional representation electoral systems and high party system fragmentation. By using such a large sample size, I ensure a high level of variation within my sample. Furthermore, the countries come from a variety of regions and continents. The sample countries also vary in terms of their experience with democratic systems, some of them are older industrial democracies, while others are developing, recently democratized states. The selected sample also possess a large amount of variation in terms of country sizes. Lastly, within each subset I was also sure to create a high level of developmental and societal variation through using the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index's (HDI) classification of development (Table 2). Each subset contains a variety of countries classified as "low human development," "medium human development," "high human development" and "very high human development." This will ensure that my results are reflective of a wide swath of countries and not just either developing or developed countries.

Table 1: Case Studies

Table 1: Case Studies

Table 2: UNDP Human Development Indicators

Table 2: UNDP Human Development Indicators


When analyzing factors such as voter turnout at a country-by-country level, it is difficult to control for the many cultural, societal, and political factors that can affect voter turnout. Despite this uncertainty I am relatively confident that I have controlled for many potentially confounding factors and have created a valid research design. As noted in the literature review there is sizeable evidence that proportional representation systems have higher voter turnout. To ensure that this does not affect my data, I will break up my sample up by electoral system and analyzed the results within each electoral systems. This allows me to isolate the effect of party system fragmentation independent of electoral systems and their various properties.

Socioeconomic factors play a very powerful role in voter turnout so it is very important to control for that in the study of voter turnout amongst various countries (Blais and Dobrzynska 2003). I was sure to maintain a roughly proportionate share of low, medium, high and very highly developed countries within each electoral system's sample. For example, within the sample of majoritarian countries each unit of analysis has 2 low human development countries, 3 medium development countries and 3 high/very high development countries. By doing this I ensure that my results reflect differences in party system fragmentation, not difference in social or economic development.

Indicators for Independent Variables

For my independent variable, the party system fragmentation level of individual countries, I will draw on data from the University of Gothenburg's Quality of Government Institute Quality of Government Standard Data. Within Quality of Government Standard Data I will use the 2010 data on the effective number of electoral parties to determine whether a given country has a low or high level of party system fragmentation. This measure is both valid and reliable as the QoG Standard Data is a highly reputable source. Furthermore, my study is focused around elections so it makes sense to use the effective number of electoral parties rather than the effective number of legislative parties.

To differentiate between high and low system fragmentation within party systems I will use a cut-off amount of effective electoral parties to differentiate between high and low system fragmentation. Because proportional representation has a propensity to generate more fragmented party systems and majoritarian systems tend to generate much less fragmented systems, I have set different cut-offs for each system. For proportional representation I have set the cut off at 3.5 effective electoral parties, for majoritarian systems I will use a cut off of 2.75 effective electoral parties. Most majoritarian countries only have a bit over 2 effective electoral parties so this threshold allows me to analyze those that break out of this pattern and have a functional sample size. Similarly, for proportional representation most party systems do not go below 3 effective electoral parties so this cut-off allowed me to meaningfully analyze different levels of fragmentation within proportional representation along with allowing a functional sample size.

Indicators for Dependent Variables

To analyze the voter turnout across my sample countries I will draw my data from the reputable International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's (IDEA) comprehensive voter turnout database. I will use IDEA's database to calculate the mean voter turnout for every country from 2005-2010. This is a valid and reliable measure because it uses a reputable data source and allows me to analyze the voter turnout across many different countries with varying electoral cycles and election frequency.


In sum this research design allows me to accurately evaluate the effect of party system fragmentation on voter turnout. By incorporating 34 different countries from a variety of continents, regions and with varying experience with democracy and levels of development, I ensure a good amount of variation within the data. In regards to control it will always be difficult to account for the many social, cultural, and political factors that play into voter turnout. However, I am confident that with my data and within reason, I have effectively controlled for many economic and social factors by having each electoral system's units of analysis have proportionate number of developed and under developed countries.

Sample Study with 17 Countries

The debate about the effect of fragmented party systems on voter turnout has yet to be resolved. Some contend that increased choices will lead to confusion and a feeling of apathy due to lack of control over how the actual government is formed. Others argue that an expanded number of parties means that more voters can find parties they identify strongly with and thus be more motivated to voter turnout for an election. The data from this case study indicates that neither is absolutely correct. In majoritarian countries increased party system fragmentation leads to decreased voter turnout. In proportional representation countries increased party system fragmentation leads to increased voter turnout.

Voter Turnout Compared for Majoritarian Countries

Chart 1: Voter Turnout Compared: Majoritarian Countries

Chart 1: Voter Turnout Compared: Majoritarian Countries

Let us look at the countries with majoritarian electoral system first. When analyzing my results, shown in Chart 1, the data clearly indicate that party systems that are less fragmented have higher voter turnout. The more fragmented majoritarian party systems averaged 62.93 percent voter turnout compared to the 65.2 percent voter turnout of less fragmented party systems. This roughly 2 percent difference proves my thesis wrong. Thus we must evaluate explanations for why voter turnout was depressed in majoritarian countries with a larger number of party choices and more parties mobilizing voters. The percentages for the less fragmented party systems are fairly uniform across countries, while the results for the more fragmented party systems are much more variable with both very high and very low percentages. It would be interesting to see if the gap between more and less fragmented party systems would be smaller if Pakistan and Bangladesh were replaced by another equally developed majoritarian and highly fragmented country.

If more party fragmentation truly does depress voter turnout then we must consider some of the possible reasons for this counter-intuitive phenomenon. Were voters in the high party fragmentation districts confused by the high number of parties running? Dr. Downs famously argued that too many choices will overwhelm voters and discourage them from voting. This seems unlikely. The average number of effective electoral parties contesting an election in the highly fragmented majoritarian systems was 4.395. A high number to be sure, but not an amount that should be difficult for someone to navigate at the ballot. In his authoritative survey of the literature "What Affects Voter Turnout?" Dr. Blais agrees, writing "I do not find the interpretation that the number of parties increases information costs very plausible either. Voters do not have to inform themselves about each party" (Blais 2006). Overall the confusion-based explanation seems to be one of the leas plausible explanations.

Another common explanation is the lack of control for the voter in terms of the final makeup of the governing coalition. This notion of accountability has received much support in the literature as an explanation of the negative relationship between parties and voter turnout (Aarts and Thomassen 2008). However this explanation lacks empirical support, a study by Dr. Blair and Dr. Dobrzynska actually found that single party governments are more associated with lower voter turnout than multiparty governments (Blair and Dobrzynska, 1998).

Another more recent theory comes from Dr. Boulding and Dr. Brown in their recent paper "Do Political Parties Matter for Turnout? Number of Parties, Electoral Rules and Local Elections In Brazil And Bolivia." Dr. Boulding and Dr. Brown argue that more parties contesting majoritarian elections results in more apathetic voters (2015). The authors argue that this is caused by more people supporting parties with little chance of winning a majoritarian election on their own (2015). Majoritarian elections in a country with less party system fragmentation experiences higher voter turnout because many of the minor party supporters coalesce around one of the few major parties. Thus, what enthusiasm and engagement a larger amount of political choices may garner is spoiled by lack of viability of most of the choices. This theory seems to be perhaps the least problematic explanation and warrants further research.

The results of my study indicate that for countries with majoritarian electoral systems, increased party system fragmentation results in a 2 percent decrease in voter turnout. The potential reasons for this could be confusion amongst voters or a perception of a lack of accountability or the greater hurdle to overcome for small parties and their voters in majoritarian systems.

Voter Turnout Compared for Proportional Representation Countries

Chart 2: Turnout Compared: Proportional Representation Countries

Chart 2: Turnout Compared: Proportional Representation Countries

The analysis of the data for the proportional representation countries as shown in Chart 2 seems to clearly match my thesis. The data indicate that countries with proportional representation with more party system fragmentation have an average voter turnout of 71.16 percent. The data also show that less fragmented party systems have an average voter turnout of just 69.62 percent. The data for the less fragmented party system countries is characterized by a high variability ranging from 47 percent to 93 percent, while the data for the more fragmented countries appears more uniform covering a much smaller range (60% 87%). Again the data show a 2 percent difference between the two party systems, however this time the data indicates the reverse of the last data set. The data clearly show that more fragmented party systems amongst proportional representation countries have higher voter turnout. This confirms my thesis that increased party system fragmentation can result in increased voter turnout.


The study clearly shows several patterns of interest and proves my thesis wrong. Within the sample of majoritarian countries an increase in party system fragmentation was associated with a decrease in percent voter turnout. However, in proportional representation countries, an increase in party system fragmentation clearly led to an increase in percent voter turnout. This is a remarkable trend and indicates that increasing party system fragmentation affects majoritarian and proportional representation countries' voter turnout in completely different ways. As a result I conclude that my hypothesis, increased amount of party system fragmentation leads to increased voter turnout, was partially disproved by the study. The study illustrates that the effects of party system fragmentation on voter turnout is much more nuanced and complex than my hypothesis made it out to be. Instead it seems that the electoral system context is crucial to understanding how increasing party fragmentation will affect voter turnout.

Potential Implications for Majoritarian Countries

Certain elements of a highly fragmented party system seem to makes it conducive to increased voter turnout within proportional representation countries but not majoritarian countries. Many political scientists have asserted that more party fragmentation leads to more net party mobilization resulting in higher overall voter turnout. Perhaps the results of my study indicate that parties behave differently in terms of mobilization in different systems. In many ways majoritarian systems do not incentivize parties to mobilize to the same degree as in proportional representation countries. Parties do not want to waste their resources, this is especially true for smaller parties in majoritarian systems where they may be at a disadvantage (Boulding and Brown 2013). As a result parties acting in majoritarian systems mobilize only the voters needed to win certain elections (Boulding and Brown 2013). Parties have no incentive to maximize turnout endlessly but they have every incentive to only mobilize sufficient voters in districts where they have the support and resources to win a majoritarian election (Boulding and Brown 2013). For example in Quebec the emergence of The Bloc Québécois did nothing to mobilize voters or draw voters to the polls in ridings outside of Quebec (Bittner et al. 2007). Thus in majoritarian systems parties have no incentive to restlessly mobilize and try to increase voter turnout across the country. Parties only need to boost their voter turnout within electoral districts where they are competitive (Bittner et al. 2007). As a result of all this party mobilization will not increase overall voter turnout in party system with more fragmentation.

Another element that is said to drive voter turnout is increased voter affinity for parties due to there being a wider variety of parties (Taagepera et al. 2013). However, in majoritarian systems, increasing the amount of options decreases voter turnout. As was discussed earlier, the negative effect of increased party system fragmentation on voter turnout may be the result of voters responding to a lack of incentives to turnout to vote for parties with no chance of success. Even if a party has considerable potential appeal amongst a portion of society, it will fail to draw voters into turning out if it lacks the ability to win a majoritarian election in individual electoral district (Bittner et al. 2007). For example in the UK a voter drawn to the politics of the UK Independence Party or the UK Green Party may decide to not turn out and vote for their party of choice due to a lack of viability in their single member district. As a result, voters who would have voted for one of the main parties as a compromise in a less fragmented majoritarian party system will perhaps abstain in a more fragmented majoritarian party system.

Potential Implications for Proportial Countries

The data showed that proportional representation responds very differently from majoritarian systems. The data clearly indicate that increased party system fragmentation results in increased voter turnout. Why does proportional representation lend itself to increasing turnout when party systems are fragmented? The answer may lie in the increased incentives for parties to attempt to maximize their turnout and the ability of minor party supporters to cast their vote for minor parties without wasting it.

As was discussed earlier, parties in majoritarian systems only have an incentive to mobilize voters within districts that are competitive for the contending party (Boulding and Brown 2013). However in a proportional election parties have an incentive to mobilize as many voters as possible because all votes will go towards the party's eventual number of seats (Boulding and Brown 2013). Similarly for voters proportional representation eliminates the demobilizing effect of worrying about wasting votes (Boulding and Brown 2013). As a result, my thesis only holds true for proportional electoral systems as only in proportional systems do both parties and voters have an incentive to turnout.

Agenda for Future Research

The results of my study indicate that party system fragmentation has differing effects based off the electoral system in use. This is a fascinating phenomenon and the exact mechanisms behind why party system fragmentation depresses and alternatively raises turnout in different systems requires further study. The cause of the negative relationship between party system fragmentation and turnout in majoritarian countries is especially interesting and there does not seem to yet be a clear answer (Blais 2006). The lack of decisiveness has become a very common explanation in the field but the data on single party government election turnout directly contradicts this explanation. The work of Dr. Boulding and Dr. Brown on the effects of party system fragmentation across electoral systems is very promising and present perhaps the most promising explanation of the effect of party system fragmentation.


The data in this study indicate that proportional and majoritarian systems respond to increased party system fragmentation quite differently from each other. In majoritarian systems, increasing party fragmentation leads to decreased turnout. In proportional representation systems increased party fragmentation leads to increased turnout. This disproves my thesis that an increased amount of party system fragmentation leads to increased turnout and voter satisfaction and indicates that specific institutional features within both electoral systems results in different responses to the political realty of increased party system fragmentation. Overall the exact effects of party system fragmentation across electoral systems and how electoral systems respond is an area that is worthy of further study.


Nikko Bilitza was a student of Government. He graduated in December of 2016. School of Public Affairs (SPA), American University. Email:


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