Media Briefings

FASTER INTERNET CONNECTIONS BOOST VOTER TURNOUT: Evidence from a local broadband policy in Italy

  • Published Date: April 2017

A 2013 upgrade of the broadband infrastructure in the province of Trento in Italy led to a significant rise in local voter turnout in the next national election, according to research by Samuele Poy and Simone Schüller, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

Their study shows that ADSL2+ availability increased voter turnout on average by about 0.2 percentage points. For municipalities where ADSL2+ was available for at least 18 months, the effect surged to 3.3 percentage points.

As far as party vote shares are concerned, the authors find a shift of votes from centre-right parties to centre-left parties. But it seems far from certain that the shift from the right to the left on the ideological spectrum is persistent. On the contrary, there is evidence that the longer a municipality is exposed to fast broadband internet, the weaker are the shifts in party vote shares.

The authors conclude: ‘While it is important to say that our study provides evidence based only on a local policy in a specific region in Northern Italy, the findings do represent an important contribution to the current debate on digital strategies in many OECD countries aimed at reducing the urban-rural digital divide.’

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In Western democracies low voter turnout is a widespread phenomenon. Countless private and public campaigns aim at bringing the voters back to the polls. Digital mass media may also boost political participation, as this research demonstrates. The authors show that the expansion of broadband internet availability in the Province of Trento (Italy) improved voter turnout and shifted party vote shares across the ideological spectrum.

The impact of new technology on society is the subject of intense debate in the social sciences. Active and informed citizens are clearly central to the practice of democracy in a modern society. Of course, easy access to information via the internet and the introduction of Web 2.0 applications (such as Twitter and Facebook) are major achievements towards lowering barriers and reducing the cost of information dissemination.

Nevertheless, it is not a priori clear whether the internet in fact increases voters’ exposure to political information and whether it affects if and how citizens vote. On the one hand, the significant reduction in the cost of information acquisition may lead to better-informed citizens that are hence more likely to vote. On the other hand, the availability of new media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, might increase leisure consumption at the expense of news consumption.

As part of the Europe 2020 objectives, the local government of Trento aimed to achieve full coverage with up-to-date broadband infrastructure by the end of 2013. To comply with this goal, a public programme was set up to roll out ADSL2+ broadband infrastructure (providing download speeds of up to 20Mbps) in those municipalities not already supplied by private providers. In fact, the programme mainly covered rural and remote municipalities.

In their empirical analysis, Poy and Schüller exploit the staged roll-out of the ADSL2+ technology as a ‘quasi-experiment’. They combine information on broadband roll-out timing with official data on election outcomes of the 2008 and 2013 Italian national elections and compare voting dynamics in municipalities with ADSL2+ access by the 2013 election date to developments in municipalities that are still awaiting ADSL2+ access by that date.

Analysing the data, the authors are able show that ADSL2+ availability increases voter turnout on average by about 0.2 percentage points. For municipalities where ADSL2+ was available for at least 18 months the effect even surges to 3.3 percentage points.

As far as party vote shares are concerned, the authors find a shift of votes from centre-right parties to centre-left parties. But it seems far from certain that the shift from the right to the left on the ideological spectrum is persistent. On the contrary, there is evidence that the longer a municipality is exposed to fast broadband internet, the weaker are the shifts in party vote shares.

Finally, the question arises as to what may explain these findings. Additional analysis of household-level data shows that the ADSL2+ policy indeed induced people to sign broadband internet contracts. The authors estimate that the positive turnout effect of 3.3 percentage points for more than 18 months of ADSL2+ exposure rises to an effect of 15.4 percentage points among broadband adopting households. Thus, the availability effects are likely to stem from actual broadband take-up.

It is important to say that this study provides evidence based only on a local policy in a specific region in Northern Italy. Yet, not least since this policy is targeted to rural areas, this research represents an important contribution to the current debate on digital strategies in many OECD countries aiming at reducing the urban-rural digital divide.

ENDS


Internet and Voting in the Web 2.0 Era:
Evidence from a Local Broadband Policy
Samuele Poy (Università Cattolica, Italy) and Simone Schüller (Ifo Institute, Germany)

Contact:
Simone Schüller
Email: schueller.s@ifo.de