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Does Compulsory Voting Breed Anti-Establishment Voting? Evidence from Brazilian Presidential Elections

Comparative Politics
Elections
Elites
Institutions
Latin America
Populism
Campaign
Natalia Garbiras-Diaz
University of California, Berkeley
Natalia Garbiras-Diaz
University of California, Berkeley

Abstract

Public opinion surveys show rising levels of distrust in parties and anti-elite preferences among voters worldwide. By capitalizing on this sentiment, anti-establishment candidates have increasingly won office in new and established democracies alike. Yet, certain institutional arrangements may be more conducive to the electoral success of these candidates. In this paper, I argue that compulsory voting may boost anti-establishment candidates by encouraging turnout among voters who would have otherwise abstained. At the voting booth, these voters are more likely to vote for candidates who align with their anti-establishment sentiment. I test this theory in the context of Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, leveraging age thresholds that make voting compulsory at the individual level as well as randomized variation in the proportion of compulsory voters across voting booths. I demonstrate that compulsory voting led to a sizable increase in electoral support for anti-establishment presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. My findings underscore how critical turnout is for the prospects of anti-establishment candidates, as well as the unexpected effect of an institution often thought to bolster the quality of democracy.