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Study: Crowded candidate fields reduce voter participation

By Lee Cleveland - June 26, 2023

In the realm of politics, the concept of choice is often hailed as a fundamental pillar of democracy. However, a groundbreaking study conducted by the University of Florida challenges this long-standing belief.

The research suggests that simplicity, rather than an abundance of options, maybe the key to optimizing voter participation.

The Impact of a Crowded Candidate Field
Led by Assistant Professor Andrew Janusz and his team, the University of Florida conducted an extensive analysis using real-world election data. The study aimed to investigate the relationship between voter participation and the number of candidates in a given election. Contrary to popular belief, the researchers discovered that as the candidate field becomes more crowded, voter turnout actually declines.

Via a university release, Prof. Janusz explains, “Choosing between many alternatives is tiring. We expected that voters would be less likely to participate when they are asked to make complex decisions. The data we analyzed in the experiment shows that as the number of candidates increases, voter participation declines.”

The Role of Party Affiliations
The researchers also examined whether party affiliations influenced voter participation. It was hypothesized that when presented with party information, voters would find it easier to narrow down their choices. Surprisingly, the study found that party identification did not significantly impact voter turnout.

Prof. Janusz comments, “We found that party identification doesn’t narrow the gap like we might expect.” This intriguing finding challenges the notion that party affiliations alone can simplify the decision-making process for voters.

Insights from Brazilian Elections
To gather comprehensive data, the study analyzed 20 years’ worth of election data from Brazil, covering the period between 2000 and 2020. This extensive dataset encompassed over 60,000 elections, providing valuable insights into voting behavior. In Brazil, citizens are legally obligated to vote between the ages of 18 and 70. Failure to do so results in a small fine.

The researchers discovered that city council elections, in particular, witnessed a higher number of candidates compared to other contests. The range varied from 25 candidates in certain small municipalities to over a thousand candidates in larger cities. This diverse set of election scenarios allowed the team to draw more robust conclusions regarding voter participation.

Overwhelm and Voter Apathy
One key finding of the study is the phenomenon of voter overwhelm.

As the list of candidates lengthens, voters may feel inundated and unsure about how to make an informed decision. This overwhelm can lead to a wait-and-see approach, where individuals adopt a passive stance during the electoral process.

Prof. Janusz added, “When voters aren’t familiar with the candidates and presented with a ton of options, they’re more likely to approach the election with a wait-and-see approach.”

Implications for Future Elections
While the study primarily focuses on the Brazilian electoral system, the findings have broader implications for democratic processes worldwide. With an increasing number of candidates vying for positions, upcoming domestic elections in the United States could benefit from considering this research.

Prof. Janusz suggests, “More and more politicians are throwing their hats in the ring and seeking their party’s presidential nomination. When voters aren’t familiar with the candidates and presented with a ton of options, they’re more likely to approach the election with a wait-and-see approach.”

The Overlooked Cost of Choice
The study challenges the conventional wisdom that providing voters with a greater number of choices enhances democracy.

Instead, it sheds light on the overlooked cost of excessive choice. While choice is essential, overwhelming voters with an extensive candidate field can have unintended consequences, such as decreased voter participation.

Prof. Janusz concludes, “Although conventional wisdom suggests that providing voters greater choice may enhance democracy, our analysis shows that there is an overlooked cost to providing voters more choice.” It is crucial for electoral systems to strike a balance between choice and simplicity to ensure widespread and active participation.