The Impact of Procedural Information Costs on Voting: Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Chile

Alejandro Corvalan and Paulo Cox

How much influence may information about ‘how to vote’ have on election participation? At first glance voting rules do not attract much attention. We use to associate them to dull administrative or menial procedural tasks we care of once every four years, and which are kept hidden in some bureaucratic drawer the rest of the time. This is so however digitalized these procedures are today, and how information about them is easily spread through social networks in today’s information era. More attention is put, naturally — if any these days—, on knowledge about the candidates or their policies or scandals. So why worry?

In this article we show that however dull the matter might be, the consequences on participation are meaningful. After all, a very basic form of information is about the electoral procedure itself, which is something that one cannot bypass if one is willing to vote. In fact, frequently asked questions among citizens are ‘When?’, ‘where?’ and ‘how?’ to vote. Of course, and most importantly, the consequences that this type of information may have, may be larger in democracies with self-initiated registration systems, which have been described as more complicated  and often involving more obscure information.

We measure the effect that the cost of information acquisition about how to participate has on participation. To be clear, then, we do not study the effect that the particular rules have, but rather the effect that the costs of acquiring information about the rules have on voting. We exploit a natural experiment to identify the effect of a specific procedural information cost on the registration, and voting, of young first-time voters. We consider the link between two particular rules: the minimum age eligibility requirement and registration closing date. In many countries, first time voters’ eligibility is related to whether they have 18 years at election day or not, while registration closing date is well before the election. This temporal gap between ‘election day’ and ‘closing date’ (CD) may create uncertainty about when the minimum age eligibility requirement is requested. The key point is that information about age eligibility’s deadline has different effects across individuals. Indeed, this piece of information is only meaningful for someone turning 18 a day after CD, while completely irrelevant for another turning 18 before or at CD. The fact that this effect is changing discontinuously at CD allows identification, because nothing at the administrative level is changing across groups on either side of the discontinuity, at any rate. What does change across groups is that one of them requires more information in order to register than the other. Accordingly, the observation of a sharp fall in registration rate at CD reveals that procedural information costs have an impact on voting.

Hence, indeed, not only the procedure itself, nor information about it, can have an impact on the rate at which citizens participate. Also the costs at which this information is obtain matter. The transparency of the electoral procedure is therefore a key aspect in shaping registration and turnout. We show that beyond the direct costs of participating, information costs on procedural rules have an effect on turnout of young first-time voters, and account for about a 10% decrease of the whole cohort in their concurrency to the ballots, due to information costs that are related to this rule only.

Information about electoral procedures may be crucial in the implementation of electoral reforms as well. A change in the electoral system typically is aimed at reducing the direct costs of voting in order to increase participation. However, the very change of these rules requires voters to acquire additional information about the new process for them to be effective. Indeed, the intended effect of the reform may be partially offset if its informational costs more than compensate the direct costs that the reform intends to decrease. Our results suggest that a key component of any reform is how information about the reform itself is to be delivered to voters.



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