Voter turnout in the 2007 General Election: A Geographical Perspective

 The 2007 General Election marked a notable break from the trend set in the previous quarter of a century of continually declining voter turnout levels in Irish general elections. The percentage turnout level increased by almost 5% to a level of 67.0% relative to the record low of 62.6% for the 2002 contest, while the actual numbers turning out to vote increase by over 200,000 from 1,878,609 in 2002 to 2,084,035. 

A number of reasons for the increase in turnout levels can be put forward. One of the factors forwarded as having played a significant role in increase in the percentage voter turnout level was the attempt made to improve the quality of the electoral register in the year before the contest, especially in light of the views of many commentators that growing inaccuracies in the electoral register over the past few decades had a key role to play in Ireland’s declining voter turnout levels: 

“It is now clear that voter turnout has not been declining at the alarming rate that all the experts believed. Between 1982 and 2002 it dropped from 74 per cent to 62 per cent of registered voters but, as we now know officially, the register itself had been moving further and further from reality.” (The Irish Times, 25th November 2006) 

 Early in 2006 serious inaccuracies in the electoral register had been reported by The Sunday Tribune, with research suggesting that there were up to 800,000 more names on the register than there should be, in turn leading the Minister for the Environment to decide on efforts to address the problem – efforts that were described as “too little, too late” by a number of commentators (Coleman and Flynn, 2006; McMorrow, 2006). Added to the perception that such campaigns, headed by local authorities across the state, to clean up the register were not as effective as they should be, there were a number of instances across the state of individuals or even whole communities being refused a vote on Election Day as they had inadvertently been deleted from the register. 

Perhaps a more notable factor accounting for the higher numbers turning out on election day was the perceived closeness of the electoral contest, with opinion polls in the closing weeks of the campaign regularly showing the main coalition alternatives of Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael/Labour to be “neck and neck” and the headline of the final Sunday Business Post before the election portraying the contest as going “to the wire” (Leahy, 2006), in stark contrast to the perception in 2002 that Fianna Fáil were virtually certain to be returned to power, as particularly encapsulated by the infamous Irish Independent “All over – bar the voting” headline. The final editorial in the Sunday Tribune strongly urged the electorate to turn out at the polls in the light of the close contest: 

 “The mood is for change and the closeness of the battle makes the combinations and possibilities unpredictable but also exciting. There is one change the electorate can make with certainty. Last time out, just 62% exercised their vote. This time, with less apathy and more effort, the electorate could register a re-energised faith in the political system – just by voting.” (Sunday Tribune editorial, 2007) 

The main surge in turnout levels tended to be associated with the more urban and commuter-based parts of the state, with ‘floating voters’ in these areas – many of which opted not to vote in 2002 – largely rowing in behind Fianna Fáil in the final days of the campaign and accounting for that party’s late surge in the opinion polls. Another factor that may have had some marginal bearing on the turnout on Election Day was the weather – while it was showery and downcast in parts of the state on May 24th, the weather was much better than the torrential and prolonged downpours that characterised Election Day in 2002. The Irish Times largely concurred, noting on the day after the election that “weather conditions were much better than in 2002 and all the parties say that turnout in late evening was up on last time, particularly in middle class areas” (Collins, 2007, 1). Another factor that impacted on turnout levels at a more localised level was the continued efforts by non-partisan groups, such as the Vincentian Partnership for Justice, to improve voter turnout levels, particularly in socially disadvantaged areas. On the other hand, there were a number of factors that militated against an even higher turnout level across the state and particularly amongst certain social groups. The most notable of these was the decision to hold the election on a Thursday at the height of the examinations period for most third level students, a factor that prevented large numbers of students – who had failed, or were unable, to arrange postal votes – from voting on the day, in turn blunting the efforts to improve the youth turnout level by the high-profile Rock The Vote campaign. (On the other hand, the Thursday polling day may have accounted for the relatively higher turnout levels in commuter areas, as ‘double-registered’ new residents in these areas found they could not ‘go home’ to vote in their original constituencies at the weekend and, as a result, had to vote in their new constituencies, thus fuelling the notable turnout increases in commuter constituencies, such as Meath East.) 

  

A Constituency Level Geography of Voter Turnout 

Figure 1: Voter turnout by constituency in 2007 General Election

Figure 1 shows reported voter turnout levels for each of the 43 Dáil constituencies in the state, with the overall turnout geography displaying higher than average participation levels in the west, north-west and south-western parts of the state, as well as much of the Border region, and especially in the counties of Tipperary, Kerry, Mayo, Leitrim and Roscommon, where the highest turnout constituencies tended to be concentrated. Lower turnout levels were associated with the urban and commuter-belt constituencies, largely reflecting the trends observed for the 2002 contest in a marked-register based micro-level analysis of turnout patterns (Kavanagh, Mills and Sinnott, 2004), although turnout differences between rural and urban constituencies were not as significant for this election. On a provincial, or regional, basis, the highest voter turnout level was recorded in Connacht-Ulster (69.7%), followed by Munster (69.1%), the rest of Leinster (67.2%), and Dublin (62.9%). Various reasons can be forwarded for these rural-urban turnout differences, including the factors such as political party organisation and mobilisation levels, community/place attachment and residential mobility/stability levels, and owner occupancy levels, as well as the fact hat some urban environments can prove difficult to canvass at election time (Fallon, 2006). 

The narrowing of the significant rural-urban turnout differentials that marked the 2002 contest was largely due to increases in voter turnout levels in the urban and commuter constituencies. Voter turnout levels increased, relative to those for the 2002 General Election, by 6.2% in Dublin and by 7.4% (to a level of 66.6%) in the neighbouring commuter-belt counties of Louth, Meath, Kildare ands Wicklow. By contrast, there were only marginal increases in the turnout rate in the more rural parts of the state (including the Midlands region (increase of 0.8%) and Connacht (1.7%)) and the three ‘inner city’ Dublin constituencies (Dublin Central, Dublin South Central and Dublin South East) and turnout levels dropped marginally in four constituencies.

The higher turnout levels in the more rural parts of Ireland were in part related to the strong coverage of local election issues in the well-read local newspapers, as well as their generally positive attitudes towards the political process. There were some exceptions to this trend. A front-page piece in The Corkman (2007: 1) at the start of the campaign, titled “Election – what’s the point?”, and portrayed a lack of faith amongst the electorate in the ability of politicians to keep their election promises. An editorial in The Kerryman (2007: 14) portrayed the contest as likely to be “remembered for not being memorable” and complained of a lack of clarity as to what distinguished parties and candidates from one another, as well as bemoaning the inability of the local candidates to clearly outline their manifestoes for addressing the key local issues – “they appear to show little or no imagination, articulation or entrepreneurial skill in solution politics”.  Most of the local newspapers in rural Ireland, however, strongly advocated the importance of turning out to vote at the polls, as evidenced in the following Leinster Express editorial.

 “In a sense, a vote is just a symbol of equality, an acknowledgement that paves the way for parity of employment, education, housing, happiness. The true choice is not between left and right, capitalist and communist, or even Bertie and Enda Kenny: the choice is between freedom and slavery.” (The Leinster Express, 2007)

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One Response to “Voter turnout in the 2007 General Election: A Geographical Perspective”

  1. Irish Times Ispos-MRBI poll (September): Seat estimates « politicalreform.ie Says:

    […] constituencies and base the analyis (and constituency estimates) on these instead.  Of course voter turnout is the silent elephant in the room – as a factor, this will have a bearing on how poll […]

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