A serious look at voting and elections in Norway

Profiles in Nowegian science


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Norway takes elections seriously and has a high voter turnout compared with other countries.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Norway goes to the polls every two years, in odd years. Last year were municipal and county elections, with next year being the national elections to determine who will be prime minister, the head of government. The head of state remains unelected royalty.

Scientists study this process. In Norway, two papers published this year offer insights into those who vote and those who are elected.

The first paper, out of the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, has one author also affiliated with the Norwegian Research Center NORCE. It surveyed a random sample of 2,013 elected local politicians from around Norway. The researchers asked the politicians about their views on a hypothetical scenario of municipalities merging. They then inquired how the politicians would vote if: (1) the amalgamation mandate came from national or local government, and (2) voters supported or opposed the amalgamation.

The results were very much as expected. Local representatives tended to follow their national party’s stance if they were part of the coalition of governing parties, no matter what voters desired. This choice seemed to be about party loyalty, which can help to further the politician’s career, as long as they remain in power. Where the local representatives agreed with the voters’ views, they were naturally also happy to vote in that direction.

In other circumstances, many politicians were willing to vote in line with the voters even if it was different from their own or their party’s viewpoint. These politicians were following the will of the people, against their own party.

The study describes many other nuances and is limited by the situation being hypothetical. It nonetheless indicates the variety of choices that politicians might make for a given issue. It further indicates that the electorate does have some sway on their elected representatives.

The second paper has two authors as well, one with the Norwegian Electoral Studies Program at Oslo’s Institute for Social Research and the other at NORCE. They examined how text messages and phone calls could be used to encourage voting by people from Norway originally. The experiment was run in two parts.

First, for the 2017 national elections, tens of thousands of voters received a text message encouraging them to vote compared with over 2 million who did not. In Oslo, the study tested the difference of the text message coming from the city of Oslo compared to the Norwegian Directorate of Elections. Second, for each of the 2017 national elections and 2019 local elections, tens of thousands of young first-time voters received a phone call from a young first-time voter encouraging them to vote compared to tens of thousands who did not.

Overall, little impact on voter turnout was seen from these efforts, with numerous provisos. The scientists conclude that context matters. Examples are the perceived importance of the election and that Norway already has high voter turnout compared with other countries. Plus, confounders must be overcome. Previous research suggests that weather influences voter turnout in Denmark but not in Sweden.

Within this morass, when parties proclaim their manifestos and voters listen or not, how important is science? Do voters ask candidates what they will and will not do for research in Norway? How concerned are politicians about supporting world-class science and pursuing evidence-based policies?

As always, it depends. Science is and always has been one input among many into viewpoints and decisions. Others include assumptions, guesses, ideologies, faith of different forms, and various knowledge types including Indigenous, traditional, and vernacular. Not everyone, politician or voter, values science, wishes to support it, or wants to see it inform policy and action. And science and scientific approaches have their own limitations.

If the concern is improving democracy and elections, then the key might be getting involved. Ask candidates respectful questions and listen to their answers. Query aspects of their promises, including costs, benefits, feasibility, and reasons for their commitments. Discuss and exchange rather than argue and debate. If a politician responds rudely or does not respond, that might indicate their governance approach, irrespective of being aligned with a voter’s interests.

Certainly, vote and encourage others to vote. Even consider running for public office.

Elections, electioneering, and voting can be as scientific as those involved desire them to be. An important question remains: How scientific should they be?

The papers mentioned in this article in order:



This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue ofThe 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.