Over the summer, United Academics organized “Share Your Science” – a writing contest for scholars. With this initiative we wanted to give them a chance to reach a bigger audience with their thesis. The winning thesis article was submitted by Priit Tinits from Harjuumaa, Estonia.
Democratic election procedures are designed so that every person can express their political preferences without external pressure. People with liberal views can feel free to vote for liberal or any other type of party and candidate, just as every voter is free to choose a party that does or does not match their own values.
While election booths are designed to be free of electoral advertising, surely our everyday life preceding the elections can have an impact on our choices? When we make that choice, can we really be sure that we have made the informed and rational choice that is the best for our country and community? And whilst trying to do that, how can we be sure that we are free of outside influences?
Parliamentary elections that followed two tragic accidents
On Sunday, February 20th,Estonia suffered one of the most destructive fires in its history. In one afternoon, fire destroyed a home for disabled orphans in Haapsalu – the regional capital of Läänemaa in western Estonia. Ten of the forty children living in the home died in the accident. In response, the entire country mourned and sent donations. Only five days later, on the nearby island of Hiiumaa another tragedy took place. A family of four had been enjoying a national holiday and were returning from a trip to the mainland. Just eight kilometres from home, their car collided with a forestry truck, killing three of the family members, leaving only their 16 year old son alive. The entire population of the island mourned in a traditional fashion, lighting candles and displaying black ribbons on vehicles.
In this same time period the country was preparing for the parliamentary elections. Many took advantage of the early electronic voting from home available in the week leading up to election day. The polls suggested that the coalition parties, Reform Party (liberal) and Pro Patria (national conservative) were to repeat a comfortable win, with the traditional opposition party, the populist Centre Party, getting a substantial number of votes – although insufficient to form a government.
At the time of this election, the Social Democrats (or SDE, after the Estonian abbreviation) had found a new dynamic leader and their election campaign was more visible and effective than in past elections. When the results were released there were no big surprises; a coalition was formed by the expected parties. The SDE was the biggest gainer increasing their share from 10 to 19 seats in the 101 seat parliament. However, the most notable changes in voting behavior occurred in the regions of Central Estonia, where although the SDE had historically been gaining substantial numbers of votes, this time they defeated all the other contending parties.
Sadness affecting voting results
Three years earlier in another part of the world, Small and Lerner (2008) published an article in the journal Political Psychology which focused on theories regarding the emotions that affect decision making. To do so, they conducted experiments where subjects were first made to experience anger or sadness. Then they were consequently presented with situations of people in need and asked whether they supported giving additional welfare to the less-fortunate. The emotions were called upon by a two-part writing exercise, where the participants were asked to name things that make them angry / sad and describe more thoroughly their most saddening / anger-inducing situation with as much detail as possible. The researchers found that when people were not involved with other tasks at the time of decision, the angry people supported less redistribution and the sad people supported additional redistribution of resources for those ones in need.
The events that preceded the Estonian elections described above were not created in a laboratory but bore an interesting similarity with Small and Lerner’s experimental conditions. The two tragedies received nationwide coverage and sympathy. As the events were one-time caused by accident and not by bad intention, there is no reason to believe they caused anger or fear. The laboratory conditions of Small and Lerner asked the subjects to bring about the feeling of sadness that eventually caused them to prefer more welfare distribution. Could this phenomenon also occur when people were reminded of the tragedies in the media just before elections?
The SDE achieved a historic election result but it is impossible to measure how big a part of it was as a result of the new leader and/or increased funding, and how much was because of the tragedies. The official data allowed an opportunity to look deeper into the increase in SDE votes, as the voting results were available for individual candidates as well as for local municipalities that formed bigger “election regions”. An “election region” is an artificial entity consisting of one or many administrative regions that shared the same list of individual candidates.
By a lucky coincidence, Läänemaa and Hiiumaa both belonged to the same “election region no. 5” together with a bigger Saaremaa island (see Figure 1). Therefore, whatever the difference in voting results was between Läänemaa, Hiiumaa and Saaremaa, it was not caused by the personal qualities of the candidates or the election list but by something else.
After adjusting for the changes in candidates lists between the two elections, the analysis of the local municipalities’ election results yielded surprisingly clear results. The biggest increase in SDE vote shares were in the municipalities closest to Haapsalu (see Figure 2). Six of the twelve local municipalities of Läänemaa belonged to the highest 10% of the percentage gain and the other six local municipalities belonged to the highest 11%-30% range. Four of the five Hiiumaa local municipalities also belong to the highest 11%-30% range. In the closest peer – Saaremaa – on the other hand, 11 out of 16 municipalities rank below the highest 30%. The increases in votes was also much higher and more consistent in Läänemaa and in Hiiumaa than in Central Estonia, where the new leader of the SDE ran, and that was the most referenced source of extra SDE votes.
Another way to present the results was to make a graph of vote increase and distance from Haapsalu (people of Hiiumaa travel through Haapsalu). In Figure 3, it can seen that in the municipalities located up to 80-100 kilometres from Haapsalu, the closer the municipality was to Haapsalu, the bigger the vote increase for SDE candidates. At distances further than 80-100 kilometers from Haapsalu, the vote increases become random around the national average. In so-called “natural experiment” settings it is not possible to be fully sure of what is the cause of all the effects that can be observed. In this research, there are differences in the increase in SDE votes between Läänemaa/Hiiumaa, and Saaremaa and other parts of the country. Since there are no other obvious differences that explain it, the tragedies of Haapsalu and Hiiumaa may very well be the cause.
Emotions at the Ballot Box
The implications of the research are far-reaching. Significant yet non political events that happen before an election sometimes affect the ballot results, like the Green Party success in the 2011 German Baden-Württemberg regional elections after theFukushimanuclear disaster. Cynical people would, of course, point at the opportunity for social democratic parties to induce sadness just before the elections to gain better results. But the more useful and important significance of these results is the fact that democratic elections are influenced by many more aspects of life than previously thought.
The stakes in power games are high and there are also players who would not hesitate to us questionable means to gain political power. Further research on psychological aspects of elections by experiment or on actual election results would help us identify such manipulations and enable the identification of necessary precautions. More knowledge on election psychology will also help improve free and fair elections by reducing the incidental or unintended impacts.
Find Priit’s original thesis here.