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Updated Feb 24, 2020

New research out of Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities suggests that in Africa it is the richer citizens who vote less enthusiastically than the continent’s poorer citizens, an inversion of an electoral truism held among most democracies in the West. The study’s authors, Kimuli Kasara and Pavithra Suryanarayan, found that rural and older voters turn out more consistently than Africans living in the city or voters under twenty-five.

A few explanations can be offered for these observations. Richer Africans may be less engaged with national politics because regardless of which party wins it is unlikely they will see their taxes rise, given the inefficiency of tax collection throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Despite infrastructure gaps between rural and urban centers, rural voters tend to be more involved in part because ruling parties find it easier to bribe and intimidate them into turning out. 

In Zimbabwe, for example, the ZANU-PF threatened to withhold desperately needed food aid to villagers who voted against the party. Rural districts also tend to be more aggressively gerrymandered to make their votes weigh more than for urban voters. Younger voters are less likely to make their way to the polls because the process of registration can be confusing and time-consuming for first-time voters, and many plan on emigrating and see no point in engaging with domestic politics. This is a particularly worrisome trend given that the mean age in more than a dozen sub-Saharan African countries is under twenty-five.

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