Compulsory Voting Can Increase Political Inequality: Evidence from Brazil
Posted: 29 Apr 2015
Date Written: April 20, 2015
One of the most robust findings in the comparative politics literature is that compulsory voting reduces the participation gap between poorer and wealthier voters. We present evidence that in Brazil, the largest country to use such an institutional rule, compulsory voting increases inequality in turnout. To do so, we use individual-level data from Brazil’s voter registry and two age-based discontinuities embedded in the electoral law, to estimate the heterogeneous effects of compulsory voting by educational achievement, a strong proxy for socioeconomic status. Evidence from both thresholds shows that the causal effect of compulsory voting on turnout among the more educated is at least twice the size of the effect among those with less education. To explain this result, which is the opposite of what is predicted by existing theories, we argue that the non-monetary penalties for abstention primarily affect middle and upper class voters and thus increases their turnout disproportionately. Survey evidence from a national sample provides evidence for the mechanism. Our results show that studies of compulsory voting should consider the presence of non-monetary sanctions, as their effects can reverse standard theoretical predictions.
Keywords: Compulsory voting, voluntary voting, and regression discontinuity design (RDD)
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