Understanding voters

Norwegian National Election Studies

Norwegian National Election Studies

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Inside Stortinget, Norway’s parliament.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

The dust has settled from September’s local elections, with the elected governments now onto the tasks of governing. It is just two years until the next poll, this time for the national parliament. In the meantime, election researchers remain on watch and continue their work.

The Norwegian National Election Studies (NNES) project examines mainly the national level, looking to better understand voters, voting patterns, elections, and election results. Funded by the Research Council of Norway from 2016 to 2023 and led by Johannes Bergh at the Institute for Social Research, NNES has a core team of more than half a dozen researchers collecting and analyzing the data and then disseminating the results and recommendations.

The project’s period covers the 2017 and 2021 national elections. The campaigns are studied for interpreting issues of importance in voter decisions as well as election turnout.

Then, after each election, the researchers conduct a vast survey of voters to look at how they voted, why, and the influences they identify. The 2017 analysis has just been published this year in the book Velgere og valgkamp. En studie av stortingsvalget 201(Voters and Election Campaigns. A study of the 2017 parliamentary election).

In English, scientific publications from the 2017 election cover youth interest in voting, an analysis of the 2017 results, and how voters connect environmental protection and stopping climate change. The data remain available for continuing investigations and writing, bolstered by ongoing progress in electronic voters’ register and e-voting.

Today’s election research in Norway continues a long tradition of similar science. Stein Rokkan published in the 1950s and 1960s on Norwegian elections, covering turnout, participation, and the role of parties and organizations. His analyses extend back to when Norway first permitted all men, and then all women, to vote nationally and locally, at the beginning of the 20th century.

Since then, media and information dissemination and misrepresentation have evolved. Livestreaming permits real-time interaction with an audience situated anywhere. Social media make it easy for anyone in the world to engage in election campaigns with information and disinformation.

Within this fractured electoral landscape, voters have changed, not necessarily telling pollsters the truth, or even being willing to respond to them. This attitude is understandable. When we are bombarded with surveys and marketers, alongside a swift moral judgment of how we should think in 280 characters or less, reticence in replying fully makes sense.

Through exploring innovative methods for understanding the electorate’s attitudes, the NNES project might be able to slice through rhetoric and skepticism—or it might fall victim to the same voter savviness, which has dented the pollsters’ confidence, from Australia to Wisconsin.

Ethical questions then arise. If Norwegian researchers were able to crack through voters’ shells and better analyze their intentions, how long until the data, methods, and analyses could be sold to the highest bidder? Yet, science is moving toward a regime in which most of this material is free to download, so everyone has the same access to it—in principle. After all, money and time are required to make use of any freely available material.

Naturally, the harvesting and use of social-media data is now a staple in elections, with the analyses being turned into efforts to influence voting and non-voting patterns. Scientists not working for or not funded by institutions stipulating that everything must be available online could develop proprietary algorithms for collecting and interpreting data. So election researchers are not merely observers: their material can be used to influence the observed.

Norwegian researchers, including at the Institute for Social Research, research these topics as well. They use the Norwegian Candidate Survey to collect information from election candidates and have compared these data with what they could find on social media.

Norwegian science on voters and elections continues to explore electoral developments with the publications accessible for anyone to read. Do some people use them to influence election outcomes? This question should certainly be part of the investigations.

Read more about the Norwegian National Election Studies at www.samfunnsforskning.no/english/projects/stortingsvalgundersokelsene-2017-og-2021-eng.html.

This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.