01 September 2021

Voting rights and voter turnout are core concepts in democracies. Consequently, how many and which people vote are important indicators of how a democracy performs. Sweden has a high voter turnout but there are differences between groups. Education, income and profession are factors that are associated with the propensity to vote.

People in a que to vote in a mall.
Que to the polling booth. Photographer Michael Folmer

“In 1911, Statistics Sweden studied for the first time voter turnout in different parts of the population. Over time, these studies have become more extensive, and so has the research in the field. This is important knowledge”, says Richard Öhrvall, doctor of political science at Linköping University. He has previously worked with Statistics Sweden’s election statistics, and his research concerns voter turnout and other forms of political behaviour.

“It’s on election day that we choose our representatives; they  should reflect our preferences. The more people who vote, the better the representation. For this reason it’s important that the citizens express their views by casting a ballot.”

Well-to-do are more likely to vote

Since 1911, a good deal has happened in terms of voter turnout. In 1921 women gained the right to vote, and since then voting rights have been extended further. Voter participation has increased from 54% in 1921 to 87% in 2018 – a high figure from an international perspective.Man sitting by a conference table, looking in to the camera Photo credit Anna Valentinsson

Over time, the differences in voter turnout between groups have decreased, although this trend has not been consistent. However, there are still differences, and the same groups are still most disposed to vote or not to vote.

More affluent groups vote to a greater extent. These include tertiary educated, people with high incomes, white-collar workers and employed. And conversely, voter participation is lower among those with less education, lower pay, blue-collar workers or those without employment.

“It’s a general phenomenon that’s evident over time and in most countries”, says Richard Öhrvall.

The level of education is strongly correlated to voter turnout, but we are still unsure about the causal mechanisms.

“Whether you continue to tertiary studies is related to your background and your upbringing”, says Richard Öhrvall.

Another notable difference is whether one was born in Sweden or abroad. Of those born outside of Sweden, fewer vote. In the 2018 election, the difference was 16 percentage points, according to Statistics Sweden.

“How long you’ve been in Sweden and which country you come from matters, but generally we see a smaller proportion of voters among people born outside Sweden”, says Richard Öhrvall.

There are also small differences between the sexes. On the whole, women vote somewhat more than men. And with regard to age, voter turnout is lower among the youngest and the eldest.

Social and political contexts important

There are various explanations for why some people vote and others do not.

One is the electoral system. A proportional system has a positive effect. Having elections on Sundays, and advance voting, can also make a difference.

American studies have shown that rain on election day can affect voter turnout. Richard Öhrvall and his colleagues have investigated this in a Swedish context, but have not found any correlation of that kind. This may be because of differences between the electoral systems.

“In the US they don’t have a proportional electoral system and for this reason, voting is not as important – at the marginal level. Also, elections are held on Tuesdays, not Sundays like here in Sweden. You might be on the way home from work on a Tuesday, there are queues to the polling station, and it’s pouring down.”Sign saying Photo credit Roland Magnusson

Individual and contextual explanations are more significant. These include socioeconomic status, a political interest, social context and norms. There are theories about voting as a habitual act where the first election in one’s life plays a part in subsequent voting. However Richard Öhrvall’s research shows that the first election is not as important as previously believed. Rather, social context plays a part.

“First-time voters are at very different places in life, depending on how old they are when they get to vote for the first time. Some still live at home and attend upper secondary school, while others have left the family nest. Voter turnout is lower among the latter group because they do not have the same network. But those differences even out over subsequent elections.”

Political context can also play a part, as well as political ideologisation and how even the election is. The political climate of 1970s Sweden is an example of this; at that time voter turnout was at its highest.

“The election outcome was uncertain, the debates were intensive and the public was very interested.”

In Sweden, are any efforts being made to increase voter turnout?

“The parties try to attract voters. The government and municipalities have also made certain efforts. Unfortunately, those efforts are often constructed in a way that makes it difficult to evaluate them. Therefore, it’s difficult to know if they have had any effect, but there is new ongoing research looking into this”, says Richard Öhrvall.

Translated by Martin Mirko.

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