Municipal Elections in Austria: High Voter Turnout and Strong Disparities

Municipal elections in Austria are diverse and voter turnout varies widely. But why are turnout, municipal council and mayoral elections worth studying at all? With the help of comparative electoral research and a special focus on small municipalities, we can still learn a lot about voter behavior.

Local elections in Austria are very diverse. They vary greatly from state to state and serve as an important foundation of our democracy at the lowest level. Because most municipalities are relatively small, these elections often get less attention and are referred to as lower-ranking. While it is true that nationwide parliamentary elections for the national council and their outcome have much more impact on our society. Nevertheless, municipal elections are important in terms of how we as citizens understand politics. The municipal level is much closer to the people, most of us know the mayors or other local politicians personally and thus we have a much stronger connection to them. Local politics is also often much more tangible for us, since it deals with concrete problems and projects in our immediate environment and we experience the facts and people ourselves and do not only perceive them as mediated by the media.

The niche that has received little attention so far
Local elections also often play a subordinate role in research, even though they offer some very interesting characteristics that make them an ideal field of research: We have a very high number of elections to observe at this level, they are diverse and take place under different conditions and different states. Almost every year, elections are held in one of the federal states; if we add the regional level of state elections, as in the prominent election year 2015, elections were held in seven of the nine states. These elections, and thus the voting behavior of citizens, are nevertheless well comparable, since all of them take place in a uniform context, the political system of the Republic of Austria. Introducing the local level to the long-established electoral research in Austria will be promising; after all, here we are able to study thousands of individual elections in recent years using statistical methods. This is all the more important because we have a long tradition of local community politics in Austria. Local autonomy was enshrined in the constitution from the beginning of the First Republic, and is exercised in relatively small municipalities. The majority of Austria's total of 2,095 municipalities have fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, which is very small by international Standards.

A closer look at voter turnout
The central object of study in my research, however, is voter turnout. Participation in elections is one of the most important forms of political participation for the majority of all citizens. By voting, we decide whom to elect as representatives to political institutions such as local councils, regional assemblies, or parliaments, and which representatives will (co-)decide for us. This is the core of representative democracy in Austria and gives our political system its legitimacy. When more people participate actively in elections, this indisputably strengthens the legitimacy of governing politicians and at the same time expresses a certain approval of the political system in general (Miles 2015). In contrast, low voter turnout can be seen as implicit approval for the current political leadership, but equally as apathy, indifference, or protest toward the running candidates (de George 2014: 52). Here, it is the task of electoral studies to thoroughly scrutinize voters' motives. The simple formula "high voter turnout is good for democracy, whereas low turnout is bad" (Franklin 1999:205) is not easily true, especially since voter turnout in Western democracies has been declining steadily over the past decades (Mair 2013). Nevertheless, voter turnout serves as an excellent indicator of the "quality of democracy" (Lijphart 2012: 283): first, it shows citizens' interest in their representatives; second, the willingness to vote increases with higher education and income and is thus indirectly an indicator of political equality.

We know from prior research that voter turnout depends on many different influences (Blais 2006, Cancela and Geys 2016). Three broad categories jump to mind: institutional factors, individual attitudes, and contextual explanations. The electoral system, such as majority voting (for mayoral elections) or proportional representation (for municipal councils), or any mandatory voting (as used to be the case in some states) are examples of institutional factors. How important an election is considered often depends on individual attitudes. Contextual explanations, for example, refer to whether voting takes place in a small community or in a larger city, or even the weather on election day. Small communities actually have higher voter turnout, and overly bad weather makes people more likely not to bother going to the polling station. In this context, my research takes a closer look for the first time at the somewhat overlooked municipal level and tries to explain the different turnout rates using statistical methods. To do so, I have collected data for all municipal and mayoral elections in the states since 1998. This collection of more than 10,000 individual elections over this period will also be accessible in the future on the dedicated website so that interested citizens can get additional information about the local elections in their home municipality. Furthermore, the dataset will also be processed for fellow scientists and published in AUSSDA - the Austrian Archive for Data from the Social Sciences - to facilitate further research.

Data as the basis of science
The local elections in Austria are very special because there are big differences between the states. Basically, we have high voter turnout in Austria compared to other countries, with 70-80%, even in the supposedly lower-ranking municipal elections. However, we also observe a strong east-west divide: Vorarlberg and Tyrol have on average the lowest voter turnouts (since the abolition of mandatory voting), while Burgenland and Lower Austria have the highest turnout rates. In most provinces, mayors are elected directly since the 1990s, i.e. with a second ballot in addition to the election to the municipal council. This has provided additional mobilization and counteracted the trend of generally falling voter turnout. Only in the largest provinces of Lower Austria and Styria is there no direct election; here, the municipal council elects the local executive from among its members. In Vienna, there is also no direct election, as Vienna is not only a municipality but also a federal state. Thus, the mayor of Vienna is also the state governor, and the local council simultaneously serves as the state parliament. My research, however, focuses primarily on the vast majority of small and medium-sized municipalities, and how turnout behaves there according to various influences. A key finding of my studies there shows that turnout is strongly dependent on political competition. In those municipalities where more lists run for municipal council elections or more candidates run for mayor, turnout is significantly higher. More competition, and thus more choice, actually induce more people to cast their ballots. This is especially the case in larger municipalities, where additional candidates can bring even more people to the ballot box. Furthermore, turnout was also higher the closer an election result was decided, for example, when two lists of about the same vote share contested in an election. Elections without any competition, i.e. when only a single list or only one person runs for mayor, mobilize the fewest voters, as expected, with more invalid votes than usual. Especially this result now seems to be very intuitive, nevertheless it is the role of science to verify just as well these expected circumstances clearly on the basis of facts and figures and thus provide empirical evidence. Especially when, as in my research, a large time period of more than 20 years and rather different states have to be compared. Hence, the study of electoral behavior at the municipal level is expected to shed more light on the behavior of voters in general.

Cancela, João und Geys, B. (2016), ‘Explaining voter turnout: A meta-analysis of national and subnational elections’, Electoral Studies 42, 264–275.
de George, R. T. (2014), Democracy as a social myth, in S. J. Cudd, Ann E. und Scholz, ed., ‘Philosophical Perspectives on Democracy in the 21st Century’, Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp. 43–56.
Lijphart, A. (2012), Patterns of Democracy: Government forms and performance in thirty-six countries, 2nd ed. edn, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Mair, P. (2013), Ruling the void: The hollowing of western democracy, Verso, London, New York.

Biographical note

Philipp Umek

Philipp Umek is a PhD student in political science at the University of Innsbruck and has been working on his dissertation project on voter turnout in local elections in Austria since 2019. He is complementarily leading a project to build a unified database for local council and mayoral elections in Austria (, funded by the Tyrolean Science Fund (TWF) of the Tyrolean government. He is a member of ICER - Innsbruck Center for European Research, the interdisciplinary Research Area EPoS - Economy, Politics & Society and teaches Statistical Data Analysis.
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