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The Role of Electoral Saliency in Expat Voter Mobilisation

Oliwia Borek


Voter turnout has generated a vast level of scholarly interest, with literature in
this area rich in both theoretical and empirical studies which seek to explain why individuals choose to vote in elections. However, very few efforts have been made to distinguish potential differences in the mobilisation of expat and domestic voter groups. This study seeks to address this gap by examining the turnout patterns of both voter groups in response to changing electoral saliency. The study uses data from the official electoral databases of governments in Poland, France, and the Czech Republic to compare the patterns of electoral turnout for expat and domestic voters in these countries. Focusing on presidential and parliamentary elections, held between 2005 and 2022, the study evaluates the effects of electoral saliency on both voter groups based on these findings. The study finds some evidence to suggest that changing electoral saliency has a greater effect on expat voter turnout than on domestic voter turnout, although this effect varies significantly across the three countries considered. Through its findings, the study demonstrates the potential for a wide variety of further research into expat voter behaviours and makes a case for their future inclusion in voter turnout literature.

Literature review

Electoral saliency

There exists a wide variety of traditions in explaining mobilisation and voting patterns in the literature. Different voter models emphasise socioeconomic, insti- tutional and, more recently, psychological factors, in determining voter turnout, with a vast number of both theoretical and empirical studies existing in this area (Blais, 2006; Blais and St-Vincent, 2010; Stockemer, 2016). This study assumes the rational voter model in explaining electoral turnout due to its compatibility with the expectation that increased electoral saliency will result in greater voter mobilisation, as will be explained in this section.

Rational voter theories assert that individuals make the decision to vote or not to vote in an election based on a reasoned cost-benefit analysis. An individual is thereby more likely to vote when the costs of voting are low, and the expected benefits of voting are high (Aldrich, 1993; Cox, 1997; Downs, 1957). While a discussion of voting costs will prove significant for our final analysis, the study focuses primarily on the impact of voting benefits on electoral turnout, with electoral saliency increasing the perceived benefits of voting for the individual.

The benefits of voting refer to what the individual is likely to receive if their chosen candidate wins an election. As the likelihood of an individual vote shaping the outcome of an election is miniscule, the voter is unlikely to reap the benefits of a favourable electoral outcome directly as a result of their own vote. This observation has inspired an array of literature on what is known as the ‘rational voter paradox’; as the expected benefits of voting are always negligible on an individual level, voting costs should always exceed benefits for the rational voter. (Downs, 1957; Feddersen, 2004). Individuals consequently require an additional push-factor which will motivate them to vote despite the low likelihood that they will personally alter the course of the election. Electoral saliency can act as such a push-factor. The greater the stakes of an election, the more benefits an individual has to gain from a favourable electoral outcome. The higher expected benefits of voting in a salient election can make the individual view their vote as more significant, even if it remains unlikely that the vote itself will shape the outcome of the election (Ferejohn and Fiorina, 1974; Kanazwa, 1998). The assertion that higher electoral saliency will result in increased voter turnout is therefore compatible with the rational voter model.

While rational voting theories have been critiqued in the literature—with some scholars emphasising that the model cannot solely explain a wide range of voting behaviours—it is worth nothing that the assumption that turnout will increase with electoral saliency has also seen a great level of empirical support (Geys, 2006). Electoral saliency has been positively linked with voter turnout in a vast number of empirical studies, with many scholars identifying it as one of the most significant determinants of voter turnout. A meta-analysis of voter turnout literature between 2004 and 2013 found that electoral saliency was positively linked with voter turnout in 90% of cases (Stockemer, 2016). Another study found that in countries within the European Union, electoral saliency increases voter turnout by 18%, on average (Franklin, 1996). The expectation that voter turnout will increase with electoral saliency should therefore withstand critiques of the rational voter theories in which it is grounded.

Expat Voters

Expat voters constitute a largely under-researched demographic in political science literature. As such, very little is known about expat voting behaviours. Some existing studies have evaluated the efforts of political parties in mobilising their expat voter base, however, these have largely focused on the types of parties likely to engage in such efforts and the mobilisation tactics they are likely to employ (Ostergaard-Niel- sen and Ciornei, 2019; Turcu and Urbatsch, 2020). Other studies have compared the voting preferences of expat voters to those of domestic voters, however, these consider only the mobilised section of the expat voter base and make no reference to the reasons for their initial mobilisation (Lawson, 2003; Goldberg, 2021). As such, no long-term mobilisation patterns of expat voters have been identified by the literature.

Electoral saliency is expected to have a greater impact on expat voter turnout than domestic voter turnout for two reasons. Firstly, expats receive fewer benefits as a result of a favourable electoral outcome than do domestic voters (Blankart and Margraf, 2011). Electoral outcomes have a lesser impact on expat voters who are largely governed by the laws and systems of the country in which they reside. The expat’s decision to vote will therefore be more dependent on factors such as electoral saliency, which increases the stakes of the election for the expat voter and deems their vote more significant. Secondly, expats are likely to experience greater voting costs in comparison to domestic voters, such as difficult registration procedures and greater distances to the polls (Baubock, 2007). Studies have found that such costs are more likely to deter voters when electoral saliency is low, while in elections of high saliency they are largely overlooked (Ortford et al., 2009). As a result of these two factors, expat voter turnout can be expected to show greater fluctuations in response to changing electoral saliency.


Defining Electoral Saliency

To understand the effects of electoral saliency on expat voter mobilisation, we must first define what it means for an election to be of a high saliency—that is, what are the common characteristics of highly salient elections. For the purpose of this study, electoral saliency will be evaluated based on the circumstances in which any individual election takes place. Elections of the highest level of saliency will be characterised as taking place in exceptional political circumstances.

Such ‘exceptional’ circumstances can be divided into two categories. Firstly, unique electoral circumstances can arise directly as a result of recent political events involving state actors or other electoral candidates. This includes elections which take place following a period of controversial government rule—characterised for example by the breaking of democratic norms by the ruling party or the govern- ment’s implementation of highly contested policies. It also includes elections which are significantly impacted by political scandals—such as allegations of corruption— involving prominent electoral candidates (Bågenholm, 2013). Secondly, exceptional political circumstances can arise as a result of unprecedented events occurring outside of the electoral process. Major national or global events will set the wider context in which an election takes place and have a prominent impact on the elec- tion campaign. This category includes, for example, elections taking place in times of national health or security crises (Cześnik, 2010).

Exceptional political circumstances raise the electoral stakes for voters and provide them with distinct alternatives from which to choose, in the election campaign. Where a party or its candidate is involved in political controversy, for example, voters will be mobilised to vote either in favour of or in opposition to their way of rule. Where the exceptional circumstances relate to an unprecedented national or global event, voters will be mobilised in favour of a specific solution or way to move forward as a nation (Kriesi, 2008). Party voter bases are consequently mobilised to a greater extent in support of their way of politics, while frequently immobilised parts of the electorate are more likely to recognise the importance of their electoral engagement. Such heightened mobilisation will also increase electoral competition, further contributing to the saliency of the electoral cycle (Cześnik, Miśta and Żerkowska-Balas, 2020).

Evaluating the Saliency of Individual Elections
As per the above definition, we can now distinguish between elections of low saliency and those of high saliency within our election sample. This section will discuss the exceptional circumstances which render a number of these elections as highly salient. All elections which are not included in the following discussion have been identified as being of a lower electoral saliency and will be treated as such in our analysis. These elections of low saliency are as follows: in Poland—the parliamentary elections of 2005, 2011, and 2015 and the presidential elections of 2005 and 2015; in the Czech Republic—the parliamentary elections of 2010 and 2017, and the presidential election of 2013; in France—the parliamentary elections of 2012, 2017, and 2022 and the 2012 presidential election.

Parliamentary Election 2007: This election was marked by political scandal, taking place two years early following the early dissolution of government in response to a series of corruption allegations, aimed at the leader of a key coalition partner (SRP) to the ruling party (PiS). Additionally, a key voting issue of this election campaign concerned the breaking of a series of democratic norms by the ruling party during its two years in power. This included attacks on the independence of the Central Bank, as well as the questioning of verdicts given by the Constitutional Court. Both issues contributed significantly to the saliency of this election (Markowski and Cześnik, 2011).

Presidential Election 2010: The 2010 presidential election took place in the aftermath of the Smoleńsk disaster—a crash of the Polish Air Force 101 flight which killed all of its 96 passengers. Amongst the deceased was the then current President and candidate for re-election, Lech Kaczyński. In accordance with the Polish Constitution, the speaker of the parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, became the acting president of Poland following the disaster and became obliged to call an early presidential election to take place within 60 days. The Smoleńsk disaster had a significant impact on the saliency of the election in which the acting president Bronislaw Komorowski and Jarosław Kaczyński, the brother of the late president, emerged as the primary candidates (Cześnik, 2014).

Parliamentary Election 2019: The 2019 election followed an electoral cycle marked by a series of undemocratic actions by the ruling party (PiS) which were widely crit- icised by opposition parties, democratic watchdogs, and the European Union. These included attacks on the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, the nation’s universities and its public media outlets. The issue of democratic backsliding increased the saliency of the election for voters, who proved divided in their views on the political future of the country (Markowski, 2019).

Presidential Election 2020: The 2020 presidential election took place in a political context similar to that of the 2019 parliamentary election - characterised by several years of democratic backsliding as a result of the actions of the ruling party (PiS). The election furthermore took place in exceptional national circumstances following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature and timing of the election was widely debated as a result of the crisis, which ultimately took place two months after its originally scheduled date (Vashchanka, 2020).

 Czech Republic
Parliamentary Election 2006: The 2006 election followed an electoral cycle of high- ly unstable rule by the governing party (ČSSD), with the premiership changing three times as a result of declining public support and financial scandal. The electoral campaign itself was characterised by a series of scandals. This included a physical altercation between members of the two frontrunner parties and the ‘Kubice report’— leaked days before the election—which accused key members of the ruling party of involvement in organised crime (Plecita-Vlachova and Stegmaier, 2008).

Parliamentary Election 2013: The 2013 election followed the eruption of a major corruption scandal involving the Prime Minister and his subsequent resignation. A caretaker government called by the President then failed to pass a vote of confidence in the Czech Chamber of Deputies, leading to its dissolution. The election was called a year early in light of these events, with the consequently rushed electoral campaign marked by the instability of its traditional parties and coalitions (Havlik, 2014).

Presidential Election 2018: The saliency of the 2018 election can be attributed largely to the controversial nature of the incumbent Czech president, who faced criticism over the divisive nature of his far-right populist rhetoric as well as his close ties with the Czech Prime Minister, who was at the time involved in a number of corruption scandals. The election campaign itself witnessed a series of controversies, with many nominees facing allegations of financial misconduct and corruption (Rovny, 2018).

Parliamentary Election 2021: The 2021 election took place in a highly salient political environment following four-years of controversial populist rule. The ruling party (ANO) engaged in a series of undemocratic actions during its term, including attempts to increase its control over the courts and the media. The incumbent Prime Minister had also faced a series of corruption allegations throughout the electoral term and was implicated under the Pandora Papers for tax evasion days prior to the election (Rovny, 2021). 

To the left: circular headshot of author. Sentence on their name, course, year, particular interests.

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