Practice makes voters? Effects of student mock elections on turnout

Published date01 August 2020
DOI10.1177/0263395719875110
Date01 August 2020
https://doi.org/10.1177/0263395719875110
Politics
2020, Vol. 40(3) 377 –393
© The Author(s) 2019
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DOI: 10.1177/0263395719875110
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Practice makes voters?
Effects of student mock
elections on turnout
Richard Öhrvall
Linköping University and Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN), Sweden
Sven Oskarsson
Uppsala University, Sweden
Abstract
Student mock elections are conducted in schools around the world in an effort to increase
political interest and efficacy among students. There is, however, a lack of research on whether
mock elections in schools enhance voter turnout in real elections. In this article, we examine
whether the propensity to vote in Swedish elections is higher among young people who have
previously experienced a student mock election. The analysis is based on unique administrative
population-wide data on turnout in the Swedish 2010 parliamentary election and the 2009
European Parliament election. Our results show that having experienced a mock election as a
student does not increase the likelihood of voting in subsequent real elections. This result holds
when we study both short- and long-term effects, and when we divide our sample into different
parts depending on their socio-economic status and study each part separately.
Keywords
education, political inequality, student mock elections, voter turnout
Received: 6th March 2019; Revised version received: 8th July 2019; Accepted: 16th August 2019
Introduction
Political equality is a democratic ideal, but in reality participation is highly unequal
(Lijphart, 1997). People who are rich in socio-economic resources participate to a higher
degree than those who are poor in that regard (e.g. Verba et al., 1995; Wolfinger and
Rosenstone, 1980). This inequality persists over generations; the socio-economically
affluent give their children a head start that makes it difficult for others to catch up
(Schlozman et al., 2012: 185–198).
Many scholars have seen the education system as an institution that could level the
playing field by providing young people with skills that foster turnout (e.g. Rosenstone
Corresponding author:
Richard Öhrvall, Centre for Municipal Studies (CKS), Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden.
Email: richard.ohrvall@liu.se
875110POL0010.1177/0263395719875110PoliticsÖhrvall and Oskarsson
research-article2019
Article
378 Politics 40(3)
and Hansen, 1993: 136). There is also ample evidence of a strong relationship between
educational attainment and the propensity to vote (Leighley and Nagler, 2014; Wolfinger
and Rosenstone, 1980). Recent studies have, however, questioned whether this relation-
ship is causal and have argued that it might be a proxy for pre-existing characteristics
(Berinsky and Lenz, 2011; Persson, 2014). Today the jury is still out on whether educa-
tion causes political participation (Persson, 2015b). It might also be that the effects are
more nuanced than previously perceived. Some recent studies have found that social sci-
ence education and civic training in schools can compensate for family-background ine-
qualities and generate more equal political engagement and participation (Lindgren et al.,
2017; Neundorf et al., 2016).
An increasingly popular and more explicit way for schools to increase political inter-
est, and to prepare students with the necessary skills for voting, is to arrange student mock
elections (Borge, 2016). In many countries, schools arrange mock elections at the time of
general elections. In this way, young people who have not come of age can get informa-
tion on party platforms and practise casting a vote under conditions that resemble real
elections. Mock elections are organised in different ways in different countries, and they
can target students at various ages. In Sweden, mock elections have been arranged at
lower- and upper-secondary schools during election years since at least the end of the
1960s. They have become an important part of the government’s efforts to increase politi-
cal interest and efficacy among Swedish youth. Mock elections could also be seen as an
opportunity for students to express their political opinions.
There is a small but growing body of research on student mock elections. Evaluations
of Danish mock elections have found that they enhance students’ internal political
efficacy and improve their political knowledge (Hansen, 2017; Hansen et al., 2015).
Borge (2017) found that students who vote in Norwegian mock elections are more
likely to also express an intention to vote in subsequent real elections. Still, this is a
stated intention and does not necessarily mean that they will get out and vote in a sub-
sequent general election. As far as we know, no previous study has examined the
effects of student mock elections on turnout in real elections. In this study, we attempt
to fill this gap. The analysis is based on unique administrative data with information
on turnout in the Swedish 2010 parliamentary election for the whole population that
was eligible to vote, as well as other individual characteristics of interest. This data,
combined with information about which upper-secondary schools have arranged mock
elections in 1998–2010, makes it possible to estimate the effects of having experi-
enced a student mock election on turnout. Apart from arranging a mock election, the
participating schools were encouraged to arrange political debates, and they also
received teaching material to use in the classroom. We consider all these activities to
be part of the mock election. Unfortunately, we do not have data on the political
debates nor on how teachers used the distributed materials, so we cannot disentangle
the various parts in our analysis.
When we study students who were enrolled at Swedish upper-secondary schools dur-
ing election years 1998–2010, we find that those who were enrolled at a school that
arranged a mock election had a slightly higher turnout in the 2010 parliamentary election.
However, schools that arranged mock elections did not constitute a random sample of all
schools; for example, students in these schools had higher grades and a more privileged
socio-economic background. When we add control variables to our models to compensate
for such differences, there is no longer any statistically significant difference between
students depending on whether or not they experienced a mock election. In other words,

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