“One vote can mean a lot”: the significance of voter turnout

Denmark’s strategy to reduce the abstention of voters in municipal elections

Itsaso Jauregui and Isla Storie

Polling station at Aarhus City Hall. Photo taken by Isla Storie

In order to vote in Denmark’s local elections citizens have to meet a set of rules: to be 18 or older, to be from an EU member state or to have resided in Denmark for at least four years before said elections. Even after fulfilling those requirements, it’s the individual’s choice whether to exercise the right to vote or not, having a direct impact on the results of the elections. However, Aarhus doesn’t seem to suffer too much from abstaining voters. In fact, in the municipal elections that took place in November 2017, 70.47% of voters showed up to cast their votes. Jesper Nielsen, a voter who never misses the opportunity, stated after leaving the Aarhus City Hall polling station: “Voting is part of our culture, it’s a right and something you have to do to use your voice”.

The importance of going to vote is present in Aarhus, judging by the queues formed in the street: people are eager to vote. Roger Buch, doctor of political science and research lecturer in social studies, states: “This is something we see in international surveys where Denmark compared to other countries has something of a world record on this norm of the importance of voting. It is kind of a social duty, a democratic duty to vote in local elections in Denmark”. However, special emphasis has been placed on the participation of young people in this democratic activity, with various campaigns organised in the past in order to encourage them.

Three of these campaigns were implemented during the 2013 municipal election period, and all had a positive impact on turnout for a group of young people aged between 18 and 29. The Danish Parliament sent copies of the Danish Constitution, alongside a cartoon promoting voting, to 18-year-olds, and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Interior sent letters of argument in favour of voting to first time voters aged 18 to 21. However, the most effective method came from the Danish Youth Council, which sent texts containing the message “Democracy needs you” and the election date to 22-29-year-olds, which increased the average turnout by 1.8% compared to a control group who did not receive the texts. As a result, text messages were sent out to voters of all ages in many local and regional councils across the country in advance of the 2017 municipal elections, where the average national turnout for those aged 18 to 29 was 70.8%.

Voters queue outside the Vejlby-Risskov Hallen polling station in Aarhus. Photo taken by Isla Storie

It is important to bear in mind that not all young people abstain from voting because they do not want to; some may prefer more time and/or life experience to make an informed decision. Professor Buch said: “When you’re young, you’re still figuring out who you are and what your values are”. In order to try to reduce these doubts that are created among young people in Denmark, an attempt has been made to explain the importance of elections to the youngest citizens. A kindergarten class was encouraged to create their own manifestos, with pledges requesting more trips to amusement parks and sweets for all children. One voter, Amalie Dammeyer, a kindergarten teacher, said: “We teach the kids in school how the elections work so they are aware of them from a very young age”.

Outside the classrooms the posters of the different representatives of the political parties flood the streets and, according to Professor Buch, the elections have also taken up a big space in the news: “National media in Denmark tends to give less attention to local politics compared to national politics. But I will underline that this is the election that has had the most intense coverage on the national media and I think that this is very positive”. 

The results of the elections will reflect the efficiency of the methods that have been carried out to try to get a higher voter turnout, but as Morten Nystrup, Editor-in-Chief of Jyllands-Posten’s local newspaper division, stated: “One vote can mean a lot”.

The intended audience is young people in Europe.

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