Empty Ballot Boxes in the City Suburbs

Braulio Gómez, Researcher in Political Science at the University of Deusto
Manuel Trujillo, Coordinator of the Statistics Unit at the Advanced Social Studies Institute (IESA-CSIC)

Some 72% of the European population, over 350 million citizens, live in towns and cities. By the year 2050, these town- and city-dwellers are expected to account for 80%. The inequality that can appear within a large city can reach levels not observed in comparisons between countries. In major urban centres it is possible to find neighbourhoods housing families owning four cars, three homes and two refrigerators just a few hundred metres away from areas housing individuals without heating, without good health, without work, and without any family, friends or acquaintances. Sometimes, the two are separated by just a main road or an avenue. But that urban frontier is lethal. Citizens suffering all kinds of deprivation are concentrated into specific neighbourhoods where they are surrounded by others in the same situation, forming an exclusion zone that is social, economic and, as concerns us in this document, political. 

When the drama of social exclusion is painted, alarms sound, above all, regarding the scenario of multi-deprivation that affects the economic and social planes of the excluded. Breakdowns in social connections and a lack of financial resources sometimes prevent the political exclusion suffered by the weakest people in our society from being taken into account. In a study carried out for Fundación Alternativas (Gómez and Trujillo, 2011) we located certain black holes of democracy where the majority of inhabitants were not taking part in the electoral process, holes that coincided almost millimetrically with the marginal neighbourhoods of the larger cities. We showed the existence of a causal relationship between living in a polling division with a profile of social exclusion and non-participation in elections. These neighbourhoods affected by extreme poverty coexist less than a block away with areas housing citizens who develop their life project with the resources necessary to enjoy a reasonable quality of life and who in the majority do participate in elections.

Despite a high average participation in the last election cycle in Spain, in some neighbourhoods characterised by poor living conditions, two out of every three citizens did not enter their preferences into the ballot boxes through their vote. In this document we again present data that show that the new social and political movements that have transformed the local, autonomous regional and state political systems in Spain over the last two years have developed outside of the poorest areas of the cities, which continue to concentrate and virtually monopolise the league table of extreme abstention.

1. Beyond social and economic exclusion: exclusion from democracy

The economic crisis has meant that the number of people at risk of poverty and exclusion has increased substantially in the majority of European cities (EC 2013). In Spain there are over eight million people at risk of social exclusion (See table 1). The majority of definitions of social exclusion take into account the problems of access to the assets and rights enjoyed by the society of which the excluded person is a member. Such assets would include housing, food or financial and energy resources, while rights would include health, education, employment, social relations and participation in public decisions. However, this latter aspect is not among the most studied, possibly because not much data exists regarding it or because the data that does exist has not been related with social exclusion or with poor living conditions in general. For example, in the list of exclusion and poverty indicators established in 2001 by the European Union’s Social Protection Committee, usually called the Laeken indicators, none appear relating to political participation or anything similar, although it is also true that this list is practically reduced to financial resources indicators, with the odd reference to employment, health and education.

We know that the spatial distribution of poverty is influenced by socioeconomic factors, but other factors also have significant explanatory power such as variables related with social capital, political behaviour, culture or capacity to access collective resources and influence decision-making. Having neighbours who vote, who are in work or who have a university education helps people to escape poverty. Just as certain urban design patterns or housing regeneration plans can help to improve the quality of life of the disadvantaged population.

Various studies have offered us abundant empirical evidence on the importance of social capital (essentially social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them; Putnam, 2000) or of the integration into some type of network as a stimulating factor for electoral participation (Putnam, 2000; Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993). The mobilisation theory proposes that people participate to a greater extent if somebody tells them to participate. In other words social or relational capital, whether achieved in the work, religious, affective or friendship space, increases the probability of citizens participating. The more windows open to the outside world, the more possibilities of receiving stimuli and political information that increase the desire to participate in the different electoral processes. For example, immigrants are usually over-represented in spaces of exclusion. Electoral participation is contagious and the concentration of people without the right to vote in spaces of exclusion would give strength to a pro-abstention environment that jeopardises the political inclusion of the most disadvantaged people. 

In the cities, black holes of democracy exist where the majority of inhabitants do not take part in the electoral process. These holes coincide almost millimetrically with the marginal neighbourhoods.

The relationship between poverty and electoral participation has been very well documented in the United States (Kepplner, 1982) and the United Kingdom (Denver and Hands, 1985). Only in these countries is it habitual to find, both in the academic environment and in the media, analytical breakdowns of participation focusing on analysing and denouncing the electoral exclusion of the most disadvantaged people in the cities. As a recent example, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, there was another reminder of how, despite the high participation registered in the country’s most populated city, Glasgow, the majority of inhabitants of the poorer districts had not taken part in this collective decision that was so important for their destiny. In contrast, in continental Europe in general and in Spain in particular, studies on electoral participation have not analysed the behaviour of poor and excluded people in the elections nor have they been concerned with highlighting the problem of extreme abstention that is detected in some suburbs of the big cities, perhaps because they represent only 5% of the electorate, as can be seen in table 1. 

2. Why is electoral inequality so important?

Electoral participation depends as much on structural factors as on those of the political context. Despite the fact that in recent years more attention has been paid to the explanatory power of the political variables related with disaffection, social inequality is detected persistently in political participation. The lack of participation for political reasons affects social groups in different ways. Although voting is less unequal than all other forms of participation, it will cease to fulfil its equalising potential if some of the groups making up society are systematically excluded from it.

Any definition of democracy, from the most minimalist to the most results-oriented, understands the right to electoral participation of all citizens under equal conditions as an essential principle of the system. It is understood that all votes are of equal value, from the most powerful to the poorest people in society. Electoral participation would be a mechanism that helps to correct socioeconomic inequalities.

One of the most significant dimensions in the proper functioning of representative democracy is its sensitivity for detecting the demands of all citizens and introducing them into the political decision-making process. An important problem would be if a certain group of citizens participated to a lesser extent than the rest and their political preferences were not introduced into the system via voting. Democracy would not function properly if equal opportunities for political participation did not exist for women, for citizens with a lower level of education, for those who are not of a certain age or who exceed it, for those who have less economic resources or for those who live in certain neighbourhoods.

3. Extreme abstention and level of social exclusion by neighbourhoods in the elections of 2015

In this section we explore whether the relationship found between social exclusion and extreme abstention in the most underprivileged neighbourhoods of the cities prior to the explosion of the major economic and political crisis has been maintained, based on an analysis of the Andalusian and municipal elections held in 2015. The data from the Andalusian elections help us to analyse, for the first time, the results of the regional elections held in the autonomous community where the most exclusion zones in Spain are concentrated. The unit of measurement that interests us for capturing with greater precision the spaces excluded from political participation is the polling division. According to Article 23 of the Electoral Law, electoral districts in Spain are divided into polling divisions. Each division includes a maximum of 2,000 voters and a minimum of 500; each municipality has at least one division.

The polling division in medium- and large-sized cities usually coincides with neighbourhoods, which enables us to observe what type of characteristics the neighbourhoods registering the most extreme abstention values display. Following the literature on exclusion (Gómez and Trujillo, 2011) we have categorised the polling divisions according to their level of social integration or exclusion. Divisions categorised as excluded would be those inhabited by people who concentrate all types of shortfalls in resources that prevent them from autonomously escaping their condition as excluded people. The variables take into account their occupation, education, social capital, housing and economic resources. We make use of some indicators of the dimensions related with social exclusion, while developing a compound indicator of social exclusion, in all cases using data from the Population and Housing Census of 2012.

The Andalusian elections of 22 March 2015 were the perfect scenario for checking the effect of the new electoral offering, represented by the more recently created parties, on the attraction of the most disadvantaged people to the polls. Over half of the 100 polling divisions with the greatest abstention rates in Spain are concentrated on Andalusian territory. The poverty and exclusion index there is one of the highest in Europe and some 22% of households suffer some type of social exclusion, which means over two million Andalusians are in a situation of exclusion (FOESSA, 2014). In these elections, no initiative was recorded to bring the ballot boxes closer to citizens on the fringes, those who most need the help from the State. The predominant option chosen by the new parties was to strengthen participation via the Internet, with more than doubtful results if we take into account the fact that it is citizens with the scarcest economic resources and those of the lowest class that least access the Internet in search of political information and even less participate or make decisions in the new digital spaces. 

Table 2 shows the polling divisions that registered the lowest participation in the Andalusian elections of 2015 and the degree of exclusion that they suffer, according to data from the Population and Housing Census of 2012. The sample is divided into four quartiles which represent four equal sections of social exclusion. Included in the 4th quartile are 25% of the polling divisions with the greatest social exclusion. Extreme exclusion would be the highest values of exclusion within the 4th quartile and atypical values would be the divisions that register a degree of social exclusion much higher than the rest. More methodological information in Gómez and Trujillo, 2011.

If abstention was the option chosen by 34% of Andalusians, in the league table of the polling divisions with the highest levels of abstention it can be seen how this figure soars to double in some neighbourhoods in the main cities and reaches up to 83% in one of the divisions that make up the Polígono Sur in Seville. What do Polígono Sur in Seville, El Puche in Almeria, Los Asperones and Palma-Palmilla in Malaga and Almanjáyar in Granada, the neighbourhoods that register this extreme abstention, have in common? They are all neighbourhoods that suffer from severe exclusion, forming part of that stigmatised poverty that nobody wants to see or have nearby. These polling divisions have the largest concentration of citizens who have lost everything: work, social relations, housing or health, not to mention economic resources.

Two months later the municipal elections of May 2015 were held across the whole of Spain, confirming that the chronic electoral exclusion of the poorest urban neighbourhoods remained. The following table shows the 75 polling divisions where the most extreme abstention was registered in these last local elections. The table is included in the body of this text in order to raise the visibility of these black holes of democracy, to prevent them from being forgotten and their names being lost in annexes that probably would not be read.

The correlation between living in an area characterised by the lack of all types of resources and electoral abstention continues to be extremely high, with the aggravating circumstance that there are increasing numbers of people living in these marginal neighbourhoods, where the number of people who can be classed as poor has increased.  

Among the 100 polling divisions with the highest difference between their own abstention rate and the average abstention in their related municipality, just nine belong to cities with less than 100,000 inhabitants. Meanwhile all of them are characterised by being situated in neighbourhoods that suffer some degree of social exclusion, in their majority extreme exclusion. There are neighbourhoods where over 75% of the inhabitants did not participate, such as La Cañada Real in Madrid, Virgen del Carmen in Alicante and Sant Cosme in El Prat de Llobregat. 

In these municipal elections, the new social movements originating from the 15M Indignados movement achieved an important level of representation through different political platforms. In fact, they reached power in the major cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Zaragoza. If we look at the details of polling division with the highest abstention rate in each of the large cities (Table 4), it can be seen that in each of the cities they coincide millimetrically with a disadvantaged neighbourhood characterised by an extreme level of exclusion and this this coincides with the situation in previous elections.

Interestingly, all of these neighbourhoods have had specific plans developed by their local councils to eradicate poverty, focusing on housing, health and employment, but none of them has implemented measures to increase the social capital and political empowerment of the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods, which are the people who most need help from the state to develop their life project and therefore are the most interested in determining public policies with their vote. Torre Baró, in Nou Barris, concentrates the largest part of demands for social aid in Barcelona. La Cañada Real, La Coma and Los Asperones in recent years have seen interventions beyond humanitarian assistance, focusing on socio-educational development. The majority of these neighbourhoods have an important number of people of gypsy origin, a group that concentrates a large part of extremely high abstention rates and that should be a priority target for social and political inclusion in these neighbourhoods. In Polígono Sur in Seville, for years a platform called “Nosotros también somos Sevilla” (We Are Seville Too) has been functioning and has repeatedly reiterated its complaints towards all the political institutions regarding political disconnection from the rest of the city. In the same sense, both the Corea neighbourhood in Palma de Mallorca, and the more marginal areas of the Otxarkoaga neighbourhood in Bilbao, have given signs of neighbourhood self-organisation to improve quality of life in their area and yet, despite having received considerable public resources and direct aid, they have not been integrated into democracy. In a previous study (Gómez and Trujillo, 2011) we showed how receiving direct aid from the state does not increase the probability of voting among socially excluded citizens. 

4. Conclusions

If you live in a neighbourhood in a large city that is characterised by its situation of social exclusion, you have a high probability of not participating in any type of election. The locations of the blackspots of democracy, polling divisions where the majority of inhabitants do not vote, coincide almost millimetrically with the suburbs of cities characterised by their lack of resources and rights. These are areas with a concentration of economic, health, housing, employment and social relations problems and in addition they suffer from severe political exclusion, as shown by the data offered in this study.

Poverty is not in itself a factor that explains the lack of electoral participation in countries such as Spain, unlike the situation in the USA, the UK or Switzerland. Socio-economic resources did not explain the level of abstention in the Spanish elections, which has meant that in these studies it has always been highlighted that voting in elections is the least unequal form of participation (Gallego, 2015). In this work we focus the microscope on the urban spaces where extreme abstention is concentrated and we discover that the poorest people in Spain, like the poorest people in the USA or in the UK, fall outside of democracy’s frontiers. 

Although voting is less unequal than all other forms of participation, it will cease to fulfil its equalising potential if some of the groups making up society are systematically excluded from it.

The extreme abstention that is localised in neighbourhoods characterised by social exclusion would be explained by the high concentration of citizens disconnected from working life. The unemployed vote less; disconnected from social life, social capital has a determining influence on votes. There are neighbourhoods with a high density of citizens that do not vote because legally they are unable to do so (immigrants) and citizens of gypsy ethnicity who remain excluded from political life. Sentiments of political inefficacy are also higher among excluded citizens (FOESSA, 2014) than among included citizens. The most active citizens in these neighbourhoods, characterised by a high level of social capital, vote more than the rest, but they are a minority. Finally, there are citizens disconnected from the digital era, which has only served to increase the political information divide between the included and the excluded. Let us not forget that information is a political asset that significantly affects participation.

Electoral participation is a right that each individual has to take part in the process through which the decisions that directly affect his or her life are made. It also forms part of the solution to poverty and social exclusion. Poverty eradication policies are more effective and sustainable if people subject to social intervention are more involved through their participation. All of the excluded neighbourhoods that we present in this work associated with extreme abstention have been the priority target of different policies focusing on improving their living conditions, their economic and social aspects (health, housing, education, employment, direct economic aid); in contrast, there have been no initiatives worthy of note aimed at incorporating the excluded into the active electoral census. The European Union is committed to political inclusion as a factor in correcting poverty and one of the targets of the plan Urban Innovative Actions 2014-2020 (€372 million) is the launch of initiatives that contribute towards improving political participation in urban areas. This type of initiative would at the same time enable excluded citizens to be empowered so that they can contribute to the solution needed for their poor situation.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that the new electoral options on offer, spurred by the great economic and political crisis, has not brought the most disadvantaged people any closer to the ballot boxes. The poorest people are not yet aware of the new politics. Nor has the new politics been sufficiently innovative and creative to attract citizens living on the fringes to the polls. If the combat is being fought between those on top and those down below, then people who have only an abyss beneath their feet continue outside of democracy: of participative democracy, of deliberative democracy, and, what is even worse for their interests, of representative democracy. 


Braulio Gómez, Researcher in Political Science at the University of Deusto

Manuel Trujillo, Coordinator of the Statistics Unit at the Advanced Social Studies Institute (IESA-CSIC)

5. References

Denver D., y R. Hands (1985): «Marginality and turnout in general elections in the 1970s», British Journal of Political Science, 15(3).

Denver, D., y R. Hands (1974): «Marginality and turnout in British general elections», British Journal of Political Science, 4(1).

European Comission (EC) (2013): The urban and regional dimension of the crisis. 8th progress report on economic, social and territorial cohesion, Bruselas: European Comission.

FOESSA (2014): VI Informe sobre exclusión y desarrollo social en España 2008, Madrid: Fundación FOESSA.

FOESSA (2013): Encuesta sobre integración social y necesidades sociales, Madrid: Fundación FOESSA.

Gallego, A. (2015): Unequal political participation worldwide, Nueva York: Cambridge University Press.

Gómez Fortes, B., y M. Trujillo (2011): Los excluidos también pueden votar: abstención y exclusión social en España, Madrid: Fundación Alternativas [http://www.falternativas.org/laboratory/documentos/documentos-de-trabajo/los-excluidos-tambien-pueden-votar-abstencion-y-exclusion-social-en-espana].

Kleppner, P. (1982): Who voted? The dynamics of electoral turnout, 1870-1980, Nueva York: Praeger.

Putnam, R. (2000): Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community, Nueva York: Simon & Schuster.

Rosenstone, S.J., y J.M. Hansen (1993): Mobilization, participation, and democracy in America, Nueva York: Macmillan.



Braulio Gómez, Researcher in Political Science at the University of Deusto
Manuel Trujillo, Coordinator of the Statistics Unit at the Advanced Social Studies Institute (IESA-CSIC)



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