The ‘Longue Durée’ of Swiss Referendum Topics, 1848-2015

15 07 2016

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User rates for Swiss E-Voters Abroad Reach New Highs

20 05 2014

 

For more information see:

Germann, Micha, Conradin, Flurin, Wellig, Christoph and Serdült, Uwe (2014) Five Years of Internet Voting for Swiss Expatriates. CeDem 2014, 21-23 May 2014, Danube University, Krems, Austria.

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How many voters of the St. Gallen electorate got mobilized to turn out at least once in four years?

6 05 2014

The cumulative turnout data of the City of St. Gallen for four years orfifteen consecutive referendum votes now shows that 81.3% of the permanent electorate has participated at least once. The most recent national referendum vote , 9 February 2014, on the anti-immigration initiative has mobilized an additional 1 percent of the citizens who thus far have completely abstained to exercise their political rights in all previous 14 votes.

Source of the data: Fachstelle für Statistik Kanton St. Gallen, Statistikdaten Stimmbeteiligte Stadt St. Gallen.

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Cumulative Turnout in a Swiss City

3 11 2013

With the help of a combined data set over seven referendum votes for the years 2010 (3 dates), 2011 (3 dates) and 2012 (1 date) it was possible to follow the turnout of individual voters in the City of St. Gallen over time. Average turnout rates for the seven individual referendum votes do not look surprising. They are actually rather high for Swiss standards and range from 44.5% to 53.4%.
Taking note of how many voters participated at least once across all seven votes we can see that the cumulative participation rate climbs up to 75.3% within a time span of only two years. It could very well go up to 80% for a whole legislature, not yet including elections. 75.3% of the electorate in the City of St. Gallen have therefore participated in at least one polling day out of seven. These figures hardly mirror the picture of an apathetic electorate or of a largely silent majority. As we can see in the table below cumulative turnout already crosses the 50% mark for each consecutive pair of polling dates, which means that within only six months more than half of the electorate was mobilized for a formal political event. The annual values for the years 2010 and 2011 amount to 66.1% and 66.6%, respectively.

More can be found here in German:
Serdült, Uwe (2013) Partizipation als Norm und Artefakt in der schweizerischen Abstimmungsdemokratie – Entmystifizierung der durchschnittlichen Stimmbeteiligung anhand von Stimmregisterdaten aus der Stadt St. Gallen, in: Andrea Good und Bettina Platipodis (Hrsg.) Direkte Demokratie: Herausforderungen zwischen Politik und Recht. Festschrift für Andreas Auer zum 65. Geburtstag. Bern, Stämpfli Verlag, 41-50.

or here in English:
Serdült, Uwe (2014) Switzerland, in: Qvortrup, Matt (Ed.) Referendums around the World: The Continued Growth of Direct Democracy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Triga, Vasiliki, Uwe Serdült, and Theodore Chadjipadelis (2012) Voting Advice Applications and State of the Art: Theory, Practice, and Comparative Insights. International Journal of Electronic Governance, 5 (3/4).

22 01 2013

Special Journal Issue on VAAs

In this double special journal issue of the International Journal of Electronic Governance researchers from Switzerland working at the Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau (ZDA) at the University of Zurich and the idheap in Lausanne figure prominently presenting their research on so called voting aid (or advice) applications (VAAs). The best known of such online election tools in Switzerland is certainly smartvote. More experimental, less well known and mostly operating abroad is ZDA’s Preference Matcher which has genereted considerable data sets that are analyzed in this special journal issue for the first time in more detail.

What is a VAA?

“The idea behind VAAs is to allow citizens to better define their own subjective, political preferences and to match these with the stated (or coded) preferences of candidates or political parties that are stored on the online application. Around 30 policy items are typically included in a VAA although in some cases such as the Swiss smarvote it can be up to around 60. The core output of most VAAs is usually a concordance/similarity score between the user and the parties/candidates across the policy statements.” (Mendez 2012: 265)

50:50 ?

Fernando Mendez  addresses a core methodological aspect of VAA design: how voters’ policy preferences are aggregated to produce measures of concordance with parties or candidates. To this end, the paper analyses the performance of four VAA models that are based on competing algorithms. The data for this test was drawn from four experiments conducted during electoral races in the years 2010 (Brazil) and 2011 (Peru, Scotland, Cyprus). As a general, not so surprising observation we can state that VAAs are better suited for issue voters whose decision for choosing between candidates or parties is based on the policy positions of the latter. However, the more similar parties’ or candidates’ positions are on the range of policy issues posed in a VAA, the more difficult it will be for an algorithm to distinguish between them and offer a vote match. Here the choice of algorithm will matter, the point being that this is not a neutral choice but rather one decided by VAA designers. Mendez concludes that there is no single best way to aggregate policy preferences to produce a voting recommendation and that “to the extent that a voting recommendation can be produced it must be treated with some degree of scepticism” (Mendez 2012: 276).

My comment as one of the co-editors of this special journal issue: “To put it more bluntly, the results of Fernando Mendez show that on average there is only a fifty percent chance for the first-ranked party or candidate to match the users’ vote intention. Whether that is a manifest flaw of VAAs or of clueless users not being aware of their ‘real’ political preferences is open for discussion.”

Big Data

Working with the same set of countries, namely with Brazil, Peru, Scotland and Cyprus, Jonathan Wheatley demonstrates that VAA generated data can also be used for research into how policy preferences of voters can be conceptualised in terms of a multi-dimensional policy space. Probably the best known political discrimination among voters is the Left-Right dimension typically referring to economic ideologies. A more recent dimension of party competition is often labelled as GAL-TAN, “with GAL representing green/alternative/libertarian values and TAN representing traditionalism/authority /nationalism” (Wheatley 2012: 319). Both of these dimensions could be detected in all four countries. A third dimension related to the question of independence and sovereignty was only detected for the Scottish case.

In my view, a couple of points merit to be highlighted here: a) Compared to ordinary opinion polls with usually  only a bit more than 1’000 respondents, VAAs are capable of producing large n data sets at relatively low cost. The VAAs under study in this article have generated datasets with 5’000 (Cyprus) to 40’000 (Peru) respondents – after performing a thorough and transparent procedure of data cleaning; b) in political contexts as diverse as in the four selected election cases it was always possible to detect the two most well known policy dimensions mentioned above. This speaks for the robustness of the applied methods and the quality of the data; c) even though representativeness seems to be an obvious concern I would argue that on one hand the online world tends to capture an ever bigger share of politically active citizens and on the other hand representativeness as such is not a necessary condition if theory development is the goal.

Middle Category Conundrums

Former c2d researcher Vicky Triga (now lecturer at Cyprus University of Technology) and her  colleagues from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki raise another often overlooked and seemingly unimportant issue regarding the design of a VAA: the question whether users are allowed to respond on a scale with or without a middle category. A response scale without a middle category forces to the users to one side of the argument. In case a middle category such as ”neither agree nor disagree’ is allowed the obvious question is what meaning one should attributed to it. To say it in the words of the authors:  “In our effort to explore the reasons why the respondents choose the middle point or the ‘no opinion’ alternative we identified three main categories of meaning attributed to these answers. The first category refers to those cases in which the respondents account for their choice in terms of (some sort of) lack of knowledge or indifference. The second category includes those answers that justify mid-point choice through ambivalence or indecisiveness, while the third comprises answers that argue against the main assumptions and/or formulation of the posed questions” (Baka/Figgou/Triga 2012 : 250).

As the authors point out, VAAs cannot escape the inherent problems of the use of a 5-point Likert scale with a middle category. However, what the study brings out is the fact that mid-point interpretation seems to vary according to the type of question: for technical questions they are chosen to represent a lack of knowledge, for trade-off questions involving a dilemma, picking the middle stands for disagreeing on the way the question is formulated.

My 2 cents: 1) More careful questionnaire design and testing before doing a VAA is very much advised. The ‘world of users’ out there is a messy onea and even item statements that seem to make perfectly sense might turn out to be rather useless. 2) More experiments are needed (users randomly exposed to mid-point or not). Whether this is feasible from an ethical point of view is another question. Getting consent from the users is only possible in hindsight.





Average Annual Turnout for Swiss Referendum Votes, 1879-2013

31 10 2012

Turnout rates for Swiss referendum votes went down after the Second World War to low annual averages of fifty and then even forty percent during the 1970ies and 1980ies. During that time many cantons changed institutional incentives. With the exception of the canton of Schaffhausen they all dropped compulsory voting. Over time three further overlapping trends can help to explain turnout variations: 1) short-term referendum votes on topics such as the relation of Switzerland to Europe or the EU as well as ballots related to immigration and foreigners can boost participation; 2) mid-term a lack of competition between political parties (during the politically very stable phase of the ‘magic formula’ for the distribution of parties in government) can have a demobilizing effect on voters; 3) long-term women are tending to participate at equal rates as men or even more often. Older women who did not grow up with full political rights and thus tend to participate much less than men are slowly disappearing from the electorate.

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National level referendum frequencies worldwide by continent, with Switzerland singled out, 1792-2010

23 10 2012

On the national level direct democracy votes are on the rise worldwide. At c2d we document referendum votes since 1793 (see: http://www.c2d.ch). However, during the last two decades, for the first time in history, Latin America as well as Europe have outnumbered Switzerland regarding the frequency of national referendums. For Europe we attribute this development to the fact that most East European countries have incorporated mechanisms of direct democracy into their new Constitutions after 1991. In Latin America we observe a ‘third wave’ of democratization leading to an increase of referendum votes.