Low voter turnout favours the Right

Does low voter turnout favour right-wing political parties? Common wisdom says it does: for example, non-voters tend to be poorer people who would have favoured left-wing parties. In the recent New Zealand general election, the centre-right National Party won an absolute majority in parliament, but only about 77% of eligible voters actually voted. I found some interesting data on non-voters and used it to see whether the result would have been different if all eligible voters had exercised their democratic duty. The results:

1. Yes, low voter turnout favours the right-wing parties.

2. If everyone had voted, the result would have been much closer: the Labour Party may have been able to form a government.

It turns out that National would not have won a majority; they would have needed all of their coalition lackeys partners to form a government. Here’s the breakdown of seats actually won, and seats that would have been won if everybody voted.

Party Actual seats With full turnout
National Party 61 58
Labour Party 32 35
Green Party 13 15
NZ First Party 11 9
Māori Party 2 2
ACT 1 1
United Future 1 1

With this result, it becomes possible for a centre-left coalition (Labour with the Greens, NZ First and the Māori Party) to achieve a one-seat majority. That would be a pretty shaky government, to be sure, but it shows what a difference the non-voters can make.

And this result isn’t final; there’s a significant chance that the final count will reduce National’s count by one and increase the Greens’ by one, which could have yielded a three-seat majority for the centre-left. This shows that voting really does make a difference — and so does not voting.

The Details

How did I calculate this? It all came from an article misleadingly called Busting Myths About Non-Voters, by the Election Data Consortium, which seems to be basically the pollster Roy Morgan Research. They give a sketchy graph on the site, mostly made up of pretty colours with only a few actual numbers, that showed the voting preferences of people who said they were not planning to vote. I extracted the numbers from the graph using my trusty ruler and Mathematics, and came up with the following. This table, like the graph, includes Internet Mana and the Conservative Party, even though these won no seats in Parliament.

Party preferences of non-voters

Of people who said they did not plan to vote, this table shows the proportion who would have voted for each party, if they had voted.

Party Percent
National Party 37.7
Labour Party 33.0
Green Party 15.7
NZ First Party 3.1
Māori Party 3.6
ACT 0.7
United Future 0.4
Internet Mana 2.3
Conservative 0.9

So non-voters were almost as likely to be Labour supporters than National, even though actual National voters outnumbered Labour two to one. So Labour were much more poorly served by their non-voting “supporters” than National were. I applied these percentages to the number of people who actually failed to vote (716,949 according to the Electoral Commission’s website) to show the proportion of each party’s supporters that failed to vote:

Proportion of party supporters who didn’t vote

Votes Non-votes Total Non-vote %
National Party 1,010,464 270,474 1,280,938 21%
Labour Party 519,146 236,826 755,972 31%
Green Party 210,764 112.589 323,353 35%
New Zealand First Party 186,031 22,000 208,031 11%
Māori Party 27,074 25,883 52,957 49%
ACT New Zealand 14,510 5,177 19,687 26%
United Future 4,533 2,588 7,121 36%

It seems strange that the “Busting Myths About Non-Voters” page says that the “common perception that centre-left parties like Labour and the Greens are hit much harder than National when their supporters do not turn up to vote does not hold up”, when their data clearly show that it does — Labour’s 31% no-show rate is half again as bad as National’s 21%, and the Greens’ is even worse.

As I mentioned, the survey data was on people’s pre-election intentions. To be more accurate, it would be interesting to use data from a post-election survey of people who actually didn’t vote. It might not change the results, but we could be more confident of their accuracy.

So if you’ve read this far, you probably already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: Vote whenever you have the chance.

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