In a global context in which disaffection with politics increases and there is growing disenchantment with democratic systems, it is important to understand what factors determine the political activation of citizens and, above all, how civic activation and democratic participation can be promoted .
Existing studies in sociology and political science show that citizens approach their politicization, their relationship with politics and their participation very unevenly. While some citizens live in a virtuous circle of participation, others live in one of deactivation and disconnection. Those who are more interested in politics, not only vote more, but also tend to participate politically in other areas. This makes them citizens who the political parties will take more into account when meeting their demands and thereby give them more incentives to continue participating in the future. In contrast, other disaffected citizens participate less, receive less attention from political parties, and thus have less incentive to make their voices heard in the future, being trapped in a vicious circle of political deactivation. If, in addition, we take into account that to achieve a high-quality democracy it is better to have an active and involved citizenry, this raises the question of to what extent we can carry out public policy interventions that allow connecting citizens with democratic institutions and “encourage” them to get active and participate more.
In a work with Joaquín Artés (UCM) I analyze the effects of being a member of a polling station in elections. Once the military service and the substitute social benefit have disappeared, serving at a polling station is practically the only mandatory civic benefit that our legal system maintains. We must not underestimate this civic service. Thanks to being a member of a polling station, citizens spend a whole day in a polling station, supervise the process, know in depth how elections are carried out in Spain and even have the experience of being part of a recount. It is an intense experience, albeit one day, that can serve to connect citizens with democratic institutions and make them feel that elections are not something alien to them. They even have the opportunity to see their neighbors voting and that may provide reasons to shore up the social norm of voting.
The analysis of the polling station members is also an interesting case. In comparative perspective, it is not usual for elections to be held under the supervision of ordinary citizens who are also chosen by lottery. The raffle allows the experience of being a member of the polling station to be possible both for citizens who are already active and for others who do not participate regularly.
To study this question, in 2019 we were able to conduct a survey of almost 300 people who declared that they had been members of polling stations before the general elections in April and we interviewed them again just after the local, regional and European elections in May and the general elections in November. We were therefore able to follow these polling station members in the three elections held that year. This gives us two fundamental advantages. One, we can check if having been part of a polling station in April has any impact on the probability of going to vote in subsequent elections that year. Second, we can also analyze whether the attitudes towards politics of the respondents vary after they have spent a whole day performing this civic service. This allows us to know if any increase in political participation is accompanied by something more profound, such as a change in the way they understand institutions, elections and democracy.
In the following graph we analyze the first question and show the effects of having been a member of a polling station on voting in subsequent elections. As can be seen, being a member of the polling station in April increases the probability of voting in that same election. This was an expected result. It is reasonable to think that, after having spent the whole day in control of the electoral process, and once they are in front of the ballot box, giving them the possibility to vote will make a good number of members of the polling station vote without, perhaps They would have done it if they had not been part of it.
The interesting thing is what happens in May 2019. In those elections, those who say they have been part of a polling station in the previous elections, still report voting with greater probability – specifically, about 7 points more – than a citizen who did not serve. at a polling station. The results are statistically significant. The effect, on the other hand, is not as powerful or long-lasting as we would expect. In November we no longer detected any impact on participation from having been a member of the polling station in April. The effect wears off and is practically zero and totally statistically insignificant.
Graph 1: Effect of being a member of a polling station on the probability of voting
Source: Authors’ analysis based on own survey data
Regarding the second question, we do not have clear evidence that there has been a change in attitudes towards politics and elections. We asked respondents their degree of agreement on a scale of 0 to 10 with a series of statements both in April 2019, before having been part of the polling station, and in May, after having been a member of the polling station. In the following graph we compare how the response that respondents gave varies between the two occasions (a value above zero indicates that agreement with the statement increases).
We only detect a positive impact in agreeing with the statement that the elections are not fraudulent. This means that the experience of being a polling station member at least has the effect of increasing confidence that the elections are fair. However, more than that, there is no evidence that citizens change their perception of what voting is and its importance or reinforce their link with the democratic system.
Graph 2: Effect of being a member of a polling station on political attitudes and perceptions
Source: Authors’ analysis based on own survey data
In summary, being a member of a polling station not only makes you more likely to vote in elections in which you fulfill this obligation (which could be something relatively expected) but there is also a positive effect in the short term. The effect, on the other hand, is neither lasting nor does it entail a fundamental change in attitudes and perceptions about the political system. This leaves us mixed conclusions about the capacity we have to generate, through public policies such as mandatory civic benefits, a more active citizenship. However, in our case we only studied an intervention that, although intense, was very short, lasting a single day. Perhaps with more sustained interventions over time, virtuous circles of activation and participation can be generated that help revitalize our democracies.