Electoral turnout depends on the kind of choice offered in elections and that choice is structured by the party system. Intuitively, more options to choose from might be expected to translate into a greater likelihood of participating in elections. However, the findings and theories about the impact of party system fragmentation on turnout are contradictory. In some accounts, more parties equals higher mobilization and thus higher turnout, whereas it could also lead to uncertainty, information deficits and lower turnout. The results of empirical tests of the effects of the number of parties on aggregate levels of turnout are inconclusive – some find a positive impact, others negative, while most do not find any significant effect at all (see here, here, and here).
Existing studies have focused on the impact of fragmentation in the short-term and at the aggregate level, by correlating the number of parties at an election and turnout rates in that particular election, or the following one. We know much less about the effects of fragmentation in the long run and at the individual level. Regarding the short-term effects at the individual level, the evidence is equally mixed as at the aggregate one. Nevertheless, in line with the theories of political socialization and voting as a habit, it could be argued that the formative elections (the first few ones at which one is eligible to vote) that are crucial for participation in the subsequent ones. The decision on whether to cast a ballot or not in the first few opportunities one has leaves a stable footprint on voting behavior. The propensity to vote or to fail to participate in subsequent elections is contingent on the contextual factors specific to the formative elections. The socializing effects of many contextual-level variables (e.g. election competitiveness, electoral system, general turnout rates and polarization) have already been tested. Party system fragmentation has been neglected in the existing studies of habitual voting.
In my recent article in Politics, I aim at filling in this gap by answering the following question: how does political socialization in a highly fragmented political scene affect propensity to vote in subsequent elections? Drawing on CSES IMD data on 96 parliamentary elections between 1996 and 2016 of nearly 100,000 individuals in 31 countries, I show – using multilevel fixed and random effects logistic regression models – that exposure to a high number of parties in the first elections at which one is eligible to vote leaves a footprint of non-participation. This linear negative effect is at play even if fragmentation has decreased over time. It is also robust to account for the quality of the choice offered, for the characteristics of the electoral system, and it is significant in both Western and Eastern parts of Europe, with the strongest effect found for the CEE post-communist countries.
Having more choice is not bad for turnout. However, proportionality is good in moderation and too much choice in terms of quantity of political offer might lead to confusion, choice overload, and, consequently, to choice deferral. Abstention is always an easy option, especially so for the youngest voters who have not yet developed the habit of voting. Facing too many options to choose from might lead to abstention, which affects decisions on whether to cast a ballot in the future. These findings are especially relevant given the recent significant rise in fragmentation of most party systems in Europe, as one of its unforeseen long-term consequences might be a further decline in turnout, which has already been falling for decades in many democracies.