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Something about young people or something about elections?

Author: Fieldhouse Edward
Institution: University of Cambridge
Type of case study: Research

About the research

In an environment of declining turnouts in elections in Western democracies, a particular concern is that non-voting appears to be concentrated among the young. As its starting point, this research observed that the overall turnout rate for 22 European countries in elections between 1999 and 2002 was 70 per cent, compared to 51 per cent for electors aged less than 25. In a 2007 European Journal of Political Research article, the authors examined national variations in turnout at first order elections for young people across 22 European countries. Using multilevel logistic regression models, the authors attempted to understand these variations, and to test the extent to which variations were – on the one hand – attributable to the characteristics of young people and – on the other hand – attributable to the electoral context in each country.

The authors found that variations in turnout among young people have both individual-level (micro) and contextual-level (macro) explanations.

Aims and objectives

Five hypotheses were tested:

H1: Turnout in Europe is lower for young people.

H2: Turnout of young people in different countries is more variable than that for older voters.

H3: Turnout of young people is more sensitive to prevailing country-level, election-specific factors.

H4: This variation is explained by general patterns of turnout (it has the same underlying geographical distribution).

H5: This variation can be explained, in part, by differences in individual attitudes and characteristics of young electors, which can be identified according to established theories of political participation.


The study employed a multilevel modelling approach, allowing the authors to simultaneously measure the effects on youth turnout of individual characteristics/attitudes/behaviour and the overall level of turnout for the country to which they belong.

The European Social Survey (ESS) question on turnout is phrased:

‘Some people don’t vote nowadays for one reason or another. Did you vote in the last [country] national election in [month/year]?’ (Registration required to view).

The ESS is a multistage sample with different sampling fractions in different countries. Multilevel models are appropriate for analysis of multistage samples as they allow the estimation of robust standard errors, allowing for clustering in the sample. They also allow us to measure explicitly country-level variation in relation to individual-level variation and to control for country-level influences.


For H1, the authors established that, across Europe for the period 1999-2002, turnout was lower among under 25s by almost 20 percentage points in comparison with the rest of the electorate. The overall turnout for all countries was 70 per cent for this period but only 51 per cent for those voters aged under 25. In some countries the difference was greater than 30 per cent.

Turnout for young electors also had a greater range than for older voters, with the lowest being 19 per cent in Switzerland and the highest 88 per cent in Belgium. (H2).

Supporting H3, the analysis revealed that there were greater differences in the impact of being young where national turnout was lower, suggesting that young people are more sensitive to factors affecting turnout across countries. In particular, partisanship, civic duty, political interest and group membership patterns were all shown to be important in predicting youth turnout. At the country level, the closeness of the electoral contest was also shown to make a significant difference.

The models also allowed the authors to examine the extent of country-level variation in young people’s turnout, and whether this was explained by individual-level and/or country-level factors (H4). By adding the official turnout at the country level the authors were able to explore the extent to which variation in young people’s participation is a function of the general level of participation in each country (H5). They found that while variation between countries for young people was related to the overall level of turnout, significant variation still remained after accounting for this.


Fieldhouse, E., Tranmer, M. and Russell, A. (2007). Something about young people or something about elections? Electoral participation of young people in Europe: Evidence from a multilevel analysis of the European Social Survey. European Journal of Political Research 46(6), pp. 797-822.