Voter Turnout

Voter Turnout

The significance of voter turnout, the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election, has been debated by scholars.

Learning Objectives

Describe competing understandings of voter-turnout measurements

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s.
  • In any large election, the chance of any one vote determining the outcome is low, especially some say, in the United States ‘ Electoral College.
  • The Electoral College is an example of an indirect election, consisting of 538 electors who officially elect the President and Vice President of the United States.
  • High voter turnout is often considered to be desirable, though among political scientists and economists specializing in public choice, the issue is still debated.
  • Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. Conversely, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout.

Key Terms

  • voter turnout: Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. Exactly who is eligible varies by country, and should not be confused with the total adult population.
  • electoral college: A body of electors empowered to elect someone to a particular office

Voter Turnout

Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s. Certain factors are leading to the decrease in the number of voters such as disenchantment, indifference, or contentment. Another contributor to lower overall turnout, is the larger percentage of the population who are simply not eligible to vote; non-citizens, incarcerated and non-self-registered individuals. Despite significant study of the issue, scholars are divided on reasons for the decline. Its cause has been attributed to a wide array of economic, demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors. There have been many efforts to increase turnout and encourage voting.

Reasons for Voting

In any large election the chance of any one vote determining the outcome is low. Some studies show that a single vote in a voting scheme such as the Electoral College in the United States has an even lower chance of determining the outcome. The Electoral College is an example of an indirect election, consisting of 538 electors who officially elect the President and Vice President of the United States. The number of electors is equal to the total voting membership of the United States Congress, 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, plus three electors from the District of Columbia. Other studies claim that the Electoral College actually increases voting power.

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Electoral College: The Electoral College map shows the results of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) won the popular vote in 28 states and the District of Columbia (denoted in blue) to capture 365 electoral votes. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) won the popular vote in 22 states (denoted in red) to capture 173 electoral votes. Nebraska split its electoral vote when Senator Obama won the electoral vote from Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district; the state’s other four electoral votes went to Senator McCain.

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Voter Turnout in the United States: Graph of Voter turnout in the United States presidential elections from 1824 to 2008.

The Significance of Voter Turnout

High voter turnout is desirable, though the issue is still debated among political scientists and economists specializing in public choice. A high turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the current system. Dictators have often fabricated high turnouts in showcase elections for this purpose. For instance, Saddam Hussein’s 2002 referendum was claimed to have had 100% participation. Opposition parties sometimes boycott votes they feel are unfair or illegitimate, or if the election is for a government that is considered illegitimate. For example, the Holy See instructed Italian Catholics to boycott national elections for several decades after the creation of the State of Italy. In some countries, there are threats of violence against those who vote, such as during the 2005 Iraq elections. However, some political scientists question the view that high turnout is an implicit endorsement of the system. Mark N. Franklin contends that in European Union elections opponents of the federation, and of its legitimacy, are just as likely to vote as proponents.

Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists. Still, low turnouts can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population.

The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. At the same time, some forms of participation have increased. People have become far more likely to participate in boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns.

Federal law restricts how much individuals and organizations may contribute to political campaigns, political parties, and other FEC-regulated organizations. Corporations and unions are barred from donating money directly to candidates or national party committees. Lobbyists often assist congresspersons with campaign finance by arranging fundraisers, assembling PACs, and seeking donations from other clients. Many lobbyists become campaign treasurers and fundraisers for congresspersons.

Factors Affecting Voter Turnout

Many causes have been proposed for the decline in voting, including demographics, voter fatigue and voter suppression, among other things.

Learning Objectives

Describe several possible reasons for declines in voter participation rates

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Wealth and literacy have some effect on turnout, but are not reliable measures.
  • Demographics also have an effect. Older people tend to vote more than youths, so societies where the average age is somewhat higher, such as Europe; have higher turnouts than somewhat younger countries such as the United States.
  • Making voting compulsory has a direct and dramatic effect on turnout. Simply making it easier for candidates to stand through easier nomination rules is believed to increase voting.
  • In politics, voter fatigue is the apathy that the electorate can experience under certain circumstances, one of which could be (in exceptional circumstances) that they are required to vote too often.
  • Voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from exercising their right to vote.

Key Terms

  • voter fatigue: voter fatigue is the apathy that the electorate can experience under certain circumstances, one of which could be that they are required to vote too often.
  • voter suppression: Voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from exercising their right to vote.

Introduction

High voter turnout is often considered to be desirable, though among political scientists and economists specialising in public choice, the issue is still debated. A high turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the current system. Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists. Still, low turnouts can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. In developed countries, non-voters tend to be concentrated in particular demographic and socioeconomic groups, especially the young and the poor.

Reasons for Decline

Many causes have been proposed for this decline; a combination of factors is most likely. When asked why they do not vote, many people report that they have too little free time. However, over the last several decades, studies have consistently shown that the amount of leisure time has not decreased. Wealth and literacy have some effect on turnout, but are not reliable measures. For example, the United Nations Human Development Index shows some correlation between higher standards of living and higher turnout. The age of a democracy is also an important factor. Elections require considerable involvement by the population, and it takes some time to develop the cultural habit of voting, and the associated understanding of and confidence in the electoral process. Demographics also have an effect. Older people tend to vote more than youths, so societies where the average age is somewhat higher, such as Europe; have higher turnouts than somewhat younger countries such as the United States.

Institutional factors have a significant impact on voter turnout. Rules and laws are also generally easier to change than attitudes, so much of the work done on how to improve voter turnout looks at these factors. Making voting compulsory has a direct and dramatic effect on turnout. Simply making it easier for candidates to stand through easier nomination rules is believed to increase voting. Ease of voting is a factor in rates of turnout. In the United States and most Latin American nations, voters must go through separate voter registration procedures before they are allowed to vote. This two-step process quite clearly decreases turnout. U.S. states with no, or easier, registration requirements have larger turnouts.

In politics, voter fatigue is the apathy that the electorate can experience under certain circumstances, one of which could be (in exceptional circumstances) that they are required to vote too often. Voter fatigue and voter apathy should be distinguished from what arises when voters are not allowed or unable to vote, or when disenfranchisement occurs. Similarly, voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from exercising their right to vote. It is distinguished from political campaigning in that campaigning attempts to change likely voting behavior by changing the opinions of potential voters through persuasion and organization.

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Voter Supression: Voters at voting booths in the United States in 1945

Voter suppression instead attempts to reduce the number of voters who might vote against the candidate or proposition advocated by the suppressors. This suppression can be in the form of unfair tests or requirements to vote. For example, in the southern United States before and during the civil rights movement, white southerners used many methods to prevent minorities from voting. These included literacy tests, a poll tax, and if all else failed intimidation by threats of violence. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 put a stop to literacy tests and any other methods of preventing people from voting. Excluding convicted from voting and re-including them only on case-by-case decisions by State Governors, as is the case in numerous U.S. states, can lead to voter suppression and can induce biased voting, as there can be a class bias in the state’s decision.

Low Voter Turnout

Low voter turnout is often considered to be undesirable; there is much debate over the factors that affect turnout and how to increase it.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the difficulties involved in measuring voter turnout

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • There are difficulties in measuring both the numerator, the number of voters who cast votes, and the denominator, the number of voters eligible to vote.
  • For the numerator, it is often assumed that the number of voters who went to the polls should equal the number of ballots cast, which in turn should equal the number of votes counted.
  • Voting age population (VAP) refers to the set of individuals that have reached the minimum voting age for a particular geography or political unit.
  • Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies. This trend has been significant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Latin America.
  • Before the late 20th century, suffrage — the right to vote — was so limited in most nations that turnout figures have little relevance to today. One exception was the United States, which had near universal white male suffrage by 1840.

Key Terms

  • numerator: In voter turnout, the numerator refers to the number of voters who cast votes.
  • denominator: The denominator refers to the number of voters eligible to vote.
  • suffrage: The right or chance to vote, express an opinion, or participate in a decision.

Introduction

Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s. In general, low turnout may be due to disenchantment, indifference, or contentment. Low turnout is often considered to be undesirable, and there is much debate over the factors that affect turnout and how to increase it. In spite of significant study into the issue, scholars are divided on reasons for the decline. Its cause has been attributed to a wide array of economic, demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors.

Measuring Turnout

Differing methods of measuring voter turnout can contribute to reported differences between nations. There are difficulties in measuring both the numerator, the number of voters who cast votes, and the denominator, the number of voters eligible to vote.

For the numerator, it is often assumed that the number of voters who went to the polls should equal the number of ballots cast, which in turn should equal the number of votes counted, but this is not the case. Not all voters who arrive at the polls necessarily cast ballots. Some may be turned away because they are ineligible, some may be turned away improperly, and some who sign the voting register may not actually cast ballots. Furthermore, voters who do cast ballots may abstain, deliberately voting for nobody, or they may spoil their votes, either accidentally or as an act of protest.

In the United States, it has been common to report turnout as the sum of votes for the top race on the ballot, because not all jurisdictions report the actual number of people who went to the polls nor the number of undervotes or overvotes. Overvote rates of around 0.3 percent are typical of well-run elections, but in Gadsden County Florida, the overvote rate was 11 percent in November 2000.

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Voter Turnout in the United States: Graph of Voter turnout in the United States presidential elections from 1824 to 2008.

The voting age population (VAP) refers to the set of individuals that have reached the minimum voting age for a particular geography or political unit. The presumption is that they are therefore generally eligible to vote, although other additional factors may cause them to be ineligible, such as lack of citizenship or a prior felony conviction. In estimating voter turnout the voting age population for a political unit is often used as the denominator for the number of individuals eligible to vote in a given election; this method has been shown to lose inaccuracy when a larger percentage of the VAP is ineligible to vote. In the United States individuals become eligible to vote in political elections at age 18.

Trends of Decreasing Turnout

Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies. This trend has been significant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Latin America. It has been a matter of concern and controversy among political scientists for several decades. The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. At the same time, some forms of participation have increased. People have become far more likely to participate in boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns.

Before the late 20th century, suffrage — the right to vote — was so limited in most nations that turnout figures have little relevance to today. One exception was the United States, which had near universal white male suffrage by 1840. The U.S. saw a steady rise in voter turnout during the century, reaching its peak in the years after the Civil War. Turnout declined from the 1890s until the 1930s, then increased again until 1960 before beginning its current long decline. Globally, voter turnout has decreased by about five percentage points over the last four decades.

International Differences.

Voter turnout varies considerably between countries. It tends to be lower in the United States, Asia and Latin America than most of Europe, Canada and Oceania. Western Europe averages a 77% turnout, and South and Central America around 54% since 1945. The differences between nations tend to be greater than those between classes, ethnic groups, or regions within nations. Confusingly, some of the factors that cause internal differences do not seem to apply on a global level. For instance, nations with better-educated populaces do not have higher turnouts. There are two main causes of these international differences—culture and institutions—although there is much debate over the relative impact of the various factors.

Attempts to Improve Voter Turnout

Generally, rules and laws are easier to change than attitudes, and thus the task of improving voter turnout must consider these factors.

Learning Objectives

Identify different measures that increase voter turnout

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The salience of an election, the effect that a vote will have on policy, and its proportionality, how closely the result reflects the will of the people, are two structural factors that also are likely to have important effects on turnout.
  • Compulsory voting is a system in which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day.
  • Mark N. Franklin argues that salience, the perceived effect that an individual vote will have on how the country is run, has a significant effect on turnout.
  • Ease of voting is a factor in rates of turnout. In the United States and most Latin American nations, voters must go through separate voter registration procedures before they are allowed to vote. This two-step process quite clearly decreases turnout.
  • Other methods of improving turnout include making voting easier through more available absentee polling, such as increasing the number of possible voting locations, lowering the average time voters have to spend waiting in lines, or requiring companies to give workers some time off on voting day.
  • Some countries have considered Internet voting as a possible solution. In other countries, such as France, voting is held on the weekend, when most voters are away from work. Therefore, the need for time off from work as a factor in voter turnout is greatly reduced.

Key Terms

  • salience: Salience is the perceived effect that an individual vote will have on how the country is run and has a significant effect on turnout.
  • compulsory voting: Compulsory voting is a system in which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be subject to punitive measures, such as fines, community service, or perhaps imprisonment if fines are unpaid or community service not performed.

Introduction

Institutional factors have a significant impact on voter turnout. Rules and laws are also generally easier to change than attitudes, so much of the work done on how to improve voter turnout looks at these factors. Making voting compulsory has a direct and dramatic effect on turnout. Simply making easier nomination rules for candidates is believed to increase voting. Conversely, adding barriers, such as a separate registration process, can suppress turnout. The salience of an election, the effect that a vote will have on policy, and its proportionality, how closely the result reflects the will of the people, are two structural factors that also are likely to have important effects on turnout.

Compulsory Voting

Compulsory voting is a system by which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be subject to punitive measures, such as fines, community service, or perhaps imprisonment if fines are unpaid or community service is not performed. Compulsory voting ensures a large voter turnout. This means a victorious candidate or party clearly represents a majority of the population, not just the politically motivated individuals who would vote without this requirement. This helps ensure that governments do not neglect people in sections of society who are less active politically. Victorious political leaders of compulsory systems may claim a higher degree of political legitimacy than those of non-compulsory systems with lower voter turnout. Political scientist Arend Lijphart writes that compulsory voting has been found to increase voting by 7-16% in national elections and by even more in local and provincial elections and elections to the European Parliament.

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Map of Compulsory Voting Countries: Red: Compulsory voting, enforced. Pink: Compulsory voting, not enforced. Orange: Compulsory voting, enforced (only men). Light Orange: Compulsory voting, not enforced (only men). Yellow: the country had compulsory voting in the past.

Any compulsion affects the freedom of an individual, and the fining of recalcitrant non-voters is an additional impact on a potential recalcitrant voter. Voting may be seen as a civic right rather than a civic duty. While citizens may exercise their civil rights, they are not compelled to. Furthermore, compulsory voting may infringe on other rights. For example, most Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they should not participate in political events. Forcing them to vote ostensibly denies them their freedom of religious practice. In some countries with compulsory voting, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others may be excused on these grounds. If however they are forced to go to the polling place, they still can use a blank or invalid vote.

Salience

Mark N. Franklin argues thatsalience, the perceived effect that an individual vote will have on how the country is run, has a significant effect on turnout. He presents Switzerland as an example of a nation with low salience. The nation’s administration is highly decentralized, so that the federal government has limited powers. The government invariably consists of a coalition of parties, and the power wielded by a party is far more closely linked to its position relative to the coalition than to the number of votes it received. Important decisions are placed before the population in a referendum. Individual votes for the federal legislature are thus unlikely to have a significant effect on the nation, which probably explains the low average turnouts in that country.

Ease of Voting

Ease of voting is a factor in rates of turnout. In the United States and most Latin American nations, voters must go through separate voter registration procedures before they are allowed to vote. This two-step process quite clearly decreases turnout. U.S. states with no or easier registration requirements have larger turnouts. Other methods of improving turnout include making voting easier through improved access to polls—for example, through:

  • increasing the number of possible voting locations
  • lowering the average time voters have to spend waiting in lines
  • extending voting hours
  • requiring companies to give workers some time off on voting day

Other options include:

  • more available absentee polling
  • mail-in voting
  • Internet voting

In other countries, like France, voting is held on the weekend, when most voters are away from work. Therefore, the need for time off from work as a factor in voter turnout is greatly reduced.

The Effect of Low Voter Turnout

Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment, a poll with very low turnout may be an inaccurate reflection of the electorate.

Learning Objectives

Analyze two different ways of understanding levels of voter turnout

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • If low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists.
  • Voter turnout varies considerably between countries. It tends to be lower in the United States, Asia, and Latin America than most of Europe, Canada, and Oceania.
  • For instance, nations with better-educated populaces do not have higher turnouts. There are two main causes of these international differences—culture and institutions—although there is much debate over the relative impact of the various factors.

Key Terms

  • voter turnout: Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. Exactly who is eligible varies by country, and should not be confused with the total adult population.

Implications of High and Low Voter Turnout

High voter turnout is often considered to be desirable, though among political scientists and economists specialising in public choice, the issue is still debated. A high turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the current system. Dictators have often fabricated high turnouts in showcase elections for this purpose. Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists. Still, low turnouts can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. In developed countries, non-voters tend to be concentrated in particular demographic and socioeconomic groups, especially the young and the poor.

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Voter Turnout: Voters lining up outside a Baghdad polling station during the 2005 Iraqi election. Voter turnout was considered high despite widespread concerns of violence.

Voter Turnout across the World

Voter turnout varies considerably between countries. It tends to be lower in the United States, Asia, and Latin America than most of Europe, Canada, and Oceania. Western Europe averages a 77% turnout, and South and Central America averages around 54% since 1945. The differences between nations tend to be greater than those between classes, ethnic groups, or regions within nations. Confusingly, some of the factors that cause internal differences do not seem to apply on a global level. For instance, nations with better-educated populaces do not have higher turnouts. There are two main causes of these international differences—culture and institutions—although there is much debate over the relative impact of the various factors.