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Do student mock elections increase turnout?

Political engagement among young people has since long been a topic of concern in public debate (for academic discussion see here and here). Different ways to stimulate participation has been put forward. In many countries around the world, an increasingly popular way to increase political interest among young people is to let schools arrange student mock elections. They usually take place at the time of general elections, and the schools provide the students with political information before they can choose a ballot, go to the voting booth and cast a vote. Thereby, young people who have not come of age can get information on party platforms and practise casting a vote under conditions that resemble real elections.

Student mock elections could potentially both increase voter turnout and make voting more equal, by providing young people with the necessary skills for voting. However, no previous study has examined if mock elections have such effects. In a recently published article in Politics, we fill this gap by examining whether turnout in Swedish elections is higher among young people who have previously experienced a student mock election.

Our analysis is based on unique administrative population-wide data on turnout in the Swedish 2010 parliamentary election and the 2009 European Parliament election. By focusing on these two elections, we are able to study one election with very high general turnout (84.6%) and one with low turnout (45.5%). The register data we use includes validated information on turnout among young people and their parents, as well as a wide range on individual and school characteristics.

Our results show that students enrolled at an upper-secondary school that arranged a mock election were slightly more likely to vote in the Swedish 2010 parliament election. However, this result is due to differences in student composition between schools that have mock elections and those that do not. When we adjust for these differences, the effect of having experienced a mock election disappears. We also fail to reveal any effects when we split our data according to socio-economic background of the students.

In other words, our results imply that mock elections do not increase turnout. This conclusion holds when we study short- and long-term effects, and we use turnout in the Swedish 2009 EP election as our outcome variable, i.e. an election with substantially lower turnout. Even if the design of our study does not allow us to make any certain causal claims, the quality and size of the data make us believe that we would have discovered an effect if it existed.

It is still, however, possible that mock elections carried out in other electoral contexts or in other ways might enhance voter turnout, and other studies provide some evidence that they might lead to other effects worth pursuing. Hence, we do not claim that mock elections do not have any merit and that schools should refrain from organising them. We only state that our results do not support the view that mock elections improve voter turnout, and we therefore suggest that the rationale for carrying them out should be found elsewhere.

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