Campaigns and elections

Does Public Broadcasting Promote Voter Turnout?

John Sides Apr 15 '09

bq. First, campaign finance systems that allow more money (and electioneering communication) to enter election campaigns are associated with higher levels of voter turnout. Second, broadcasting systems and access to paid political television advertising explain cross-national variation in turnout, but their effects are more complex than initially expected. While public broadcasting clearly promotes higher levels of turnout, it also modifies the effect of paid advertising access on turnout.

That is from a newly published article by Mijeong Baek, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin. The modifying effect she refers to is this: in countries where public television channels command a small audience share, allowing paid political advertising is associated with lower turnout. But in countries where public television commands a large audience share, allowing paid political advertising is associated with higher turnout. Why? Baek speculates:

bq. In public systems, the allowance of paid advertising on television is associated with higher voter turnout. Political advertising in public broadcasting systems may have an even greater tendency to activate voters due to its rareness and stylistic distinction when compared to regularly recurring programs on public television. In other words, voters are less desensitized to political commercials?which can be quite striking—than to programs or commercials they see on a regular basis. On the other hand, the negative marginal effect of access to paid advertising in highly private systems suggests that the commercialization of political communication—and thus media-centered campaigns—are related to lower voter turnout. This finding parallels the observation of Rosenstone and Hansen (1993) that citizens are less likely to vote when the main approach to promoting a candidate or party is based on mass media rather than person-to-person mobilization.

This link between communication systems and turnout is new. And the use of cross-national data is fairly rare in the study of how communication affects political behavior. Baek’s findings also have some important implications. Namely, it’s good to have more money in elections:

bq. My empirical findings clearly evidence that legally established ceilings on campaign contributions and expenditures depress turnout.

But there’s good news for campaign reformer as well:

bq. …public financing measures, especially in the form of free television air time to parties and candidates, promote voter participation.

In short, it’s not the mere existence of government regulation of campaigns and media systems that matters, but the nature of those regulations.

The article is here.