According to modernisation theory, electoral participation should become less important in modern democracies. “Modern” citizens feel more capable of handling their own political affairs, thus they will decide for themselves when and how to get involved in political action, and consequentially will not automatically cast their vote. This view has in recent years often been rephrased into the expectation that electoral turnout in Western societies will decrease. However, this expectation is at odds with current knowledge about the development of the most important individual characteristic associated with electoral participation — i.e. the level of education — thus giving rise to a “puzzle of turnout”. This chapter addresses the turnout puzzle and provides an alternative explanation of varying turnout figures: the political context of the election. The political context (polarisation, degree of alienation and of indifference) is shown to account for trends and fluctuations in turnout in the six European democracies for up to 40 years.
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