Low Voter Density Harms Voter Anonymity and Biases Italian Elections

| Press release

The density of voters in polling regions limits the secrecy of voting and can affect the outcome of Italian elections, according to new research from EconPol Europe. And, say researchers, countries with a similar voting mechanism will experience the same effect.

In the first study to analyze the link between voter density and election bias, authors Mauro Caselli (University of Trento) and Paolo Falco (University of Copenhagen) examined all municipal elections conducted in Italy from 1989 to 2015.

They found that lower voter density significantly increases the probability of re-election for an incumbent in a municipal office, while in areas with a higher number of voters the probability of re-election for an incumbent falls.

In Italy, voters are assigned to a specific polling station according to their address, and the number of voters per polling station varies. After an election, information on the number of votes obtained by every candidate in each polling station is publicly available.

Such a mechanism is likely to have an impact on the outcome of elections, say authors, particularly municipal elections where candidates have a close relationship with voters and a detailed knowledge of their geographical distribution. If candidates can retaliate against voters who do not vote for them, this affects voters’ choices.

Lower voter density also has a stronger positive impact on the probability of re-election in cities with lower levels of social capital, strongly suggesting that the negative effects of lower density on electoral competition are larger in areas where the quality of government is lower. As a result, electoral competition is reduced and incumbent politicians gain an advantage that helps their re-election.

“The results have important implications for policy makers,” say authors. “Concerns about the adverse impacts of the mechanism documented in this paper have inspired recent parliamentary action in Italy to pass legislation that would increase the size of electoral districts. This is the first paper, however, to empirically document the phenomenon.”

Read the full paper: http://www.econpol.eu/publications/working_paper_26