The people as numbers: The politics of election statistics in Sweden, 1866–1921
Opinion polls have been an essential part of democratic politics since the middle of the 20th century. They inform views of what popular politics is about, and shape political debates and party strategies, as well as citizens’ understandings of themselves as political subjects. However, quantitative data about elections and the electorate have a much longer history that deserves attention.
This longer history can be explored by investigating the creation of official election statistics in Sweden in the 1860s and its subsequent development up to the ”democratic breakthrough” in the early 1920s. Although historical studies of statistics have proliferated in recent decades, very little is known about the cultural and political history of election statistics. This article asks, firstly, how this new sort of statistical knowledge was described and justified, in particular in relation to the ideas of political representation that underpinned the new bicameral parliament, and how official statistics were used to promote national improvement and political reform. Secondly, the article asks how election statistics constructed the electorate as an object of study, paying particular attention to the changing categories used to present and explain statistical data in official publications.
From their inception, official election statistics, produced and published by the government agency Statistiska Centralbyrån (Statistics Sweden), were intended to measure national political life and to provide statesmen and ordinary citizens with useful insights into the consequences of projected and completed constitutional reforms. Election statistics interpreted the electorate in terms of political activity, interests, conflict, participation and economic inequality, and, toward the end of the period, presented voters according to differences of occupation, class and gender. Contemporary debates testify that elections statistics were deemed both reliable and politically useful information, and gave considerable encouragement to this quantitative view of politics and of the people.