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Identifying the Effect of Election Closeness on Voter Turnout: Evidence from Swiss Referenda

Leonardo Bursztyn, Davide Cantoni, Patricia Funk, Felix Schönenberger, Noam Yuchtman

NBER Working Paper No. 23490
Issued in June 2017, Revised in August 2020
NBER Program(s):Political Economy

We provide evidence of a causal effect of anticipated election closeness on voter turnout, exploiting the precise day-level timing of the release of Swiss national poll results for high-stakes federal referenda, and a novel dataset on daily mail-in voting for the canton of Geneva. Using an event study design, we find that the release of a closer poll causes voter turnout to sharply rise immediately after poll release, with no differential pre-release turnout levels or trends. We provide evidence that polls affect turnout by providing information shaping beliefs about closeness: first, the introduction of Swiss polls had significantly larger effects in politically unrepresentative municipalities, where locally available signals of closeness are less correlated with national closeness. Second, the effects of close polls are largest where newspapers report on them most. Counterfactual exercises suggest the importance of polls and reporting on polls in shaping election outcomes.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23490

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