Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Low turnout is often attributed to political disengagement and the belief that voting for one candidate/party or another will do little to alter public policy. Voter turnout in the U.S. is lower than in most established democracies. In this section we examine voter turnout in the United States and present steps we might take to increase voter turnout.
Voter Turnout in the United States
Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections. In recent decades, about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years and about 40% votes during midterm elections, with 2020 and 2018 marking the highest presidential and midterm turnout in over a century.
By international standards, voter turnout in the U.S. is low. In countries with compulsory voting, like Australia, Belgium, and Chile, voter turnout hovered near 90% in the 2000s. Other countries, like Austria, Sweden, and Italy, experienced turnout rates near 80%. Overall, OECD countries experience turnout rates of about 70%.
Measuring voter turnout
Voter turnout can be measured in different ways, using different denominators. It can be expressed as a percentage of the population that is old enough to vote ("voting age population turnout"), a percentage of the number of eligible voters (“voting eligible population turnout”), or as a percentage of registered voters (“registered voter turnout”).
It is easy to confuse these different measures of voter participation and make misleading inferences about the relative health of our democracy. This is especially true when comparing turnout in the United States (which is often measured in terms of the voting eligible population or the voting age population) to other countries (which tend to measure voter turnout in terms of registered voters).
How many people in the United States vote?
In the first few presidential elections, most states either did not hold popular elections or imposed a property requirement, meaning only White men with property could vote. By 1824, almost all states held popular elections for presidential electors and property requirements were gradually being eliminated.The right to vote was extended to more U.S. residents in three notable ways since then.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment established the right to vote for all male citizens regardless of race. However, with the exception of a brief period in the 1870's, the 15th Amendment proved ineffective at preventing the exclusion of Black citizens from voting in many states until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1920, the 19th Amendment increased the number of eligible voters by ensuring women could vote in all states.
In 1971, the 19th Amendment enfranchised 18-20 year olds.
What Affects Voter Turnout
On a good year, about 60% of eligible voters will make it to the polls for the presidential election. On a bad year, that number can be less than 50%. Midterm elections bring in far fewer voters. Over a billion dollars will be spent during this election cycle. Every winning angle will be exhausted, and the best minds in the business will make every effort to understand voters and invent the mechanisms that will sway their votes in November. But no matter how sophisticated the campaign or how positive the message, there are factors outside the control of candidates and campaigns that influence voter turnout and have the potential to shape elections. Today we will have a look not at ways to get voters to the polls but at the many factors that can keep them at home.
1. Voter demographics
There are endless studies citing the effects of voter demographics on turnout. We will not go into those details here, but any summary explanation of voter turnout should mention these factors. In short, older voters tend to vote more than younger voters. Wealthy and educated voters are more likely to turnout than lower-income voters. More specifically, very low-income voters face more obstacles to voting, such as time away from work and adequate transportation, than those with higher incomes.
2. One-sided states and races
Another important factor that keeps voters at home is apathy. Put another way, voters are far less likely to take part in an election if they feel their vote is wasted. If a race is not competitive, voters on both sides will stay home. They feel that their vote cannot possibly influence the race, so why bother?
3. Two-step voter registration
A common roadblock to voters is the two-part registration system, which requires two events to be completed on different days. Any requirements that cost voters more time or make processes more complicated will have a negative effect on voter turnout.
It is probably no surprise that voters are less likely to make it to the polls when it is raining. In fact, studies have shown that “When compared to normal conditions, rain significantly reduces voter participation by a rate of just less than 1 percent per inch, while an inch of snowfall decreases turnout by almost .5 percent. Poor weather is also shown to benefit the Republican party’s vote share.” It has been argued that weather cost both Richard Nixon and Al Gore an election.
Taken alone, these factors may have a very small impact on any given voter. But taken together, they can create a perfect storm with the power to swing elections. If turnout is already hindered by state laws or uncompetitive races, and the election-day weather is terrible, turnout can be severely affected. What is most important to understand is that, despite the staggering amount of money and effort expended during a presidential election, there are always factors over which candidates and campaigns have little or no control.
Voter registration laws, voter identification laws, early voting, and polling place accessibility can also affect voter turnout.
What causes higher voter turnout?
Of course, voter registration trends across states differ every year, and even some changes in your approach can increase voter turnout. However, some strategies apply regardless of these changes.
Help voters make a plan
People are more likely to complete a task if you can get them to mentally visualize the process.
When voters were asked over the phone to take a pledge to vote followed by a series of questions that mentally took them through the process of voting, they voted at a rate 4 percentage points higher than people who did not receive the call.
The tactic works best on voters who stay alone. These voters are less likely to have a plan than people who stay in groups or families where discussing the next day’s activities is a normal part of everyday life. For someone who stays alone, rehearsing their Election Day routine with a stranger has a huge effect on their decision to cast a vote.
Repeat personal contact
Voter turnout increases when you remind your voters of the election day. Door-to-door canvassing and phone banking are particularly effective at turning out voters, including those who haven’t voted much in the past. The personal social contact that is inherent in these two communication mediums is noted by political science experiments as the driving force inspiring people to vote.
Exert social pressure
Get Out The Vote messages that use social pressure to motivate people to vote are effective at increasing voter turnout. Well connected people have an impact in increasing voter turnout by motivating their network to do so. Results from political science experiments during the 2006 Michigan primary elections show that when voters were reminded through a GOTV mailer that their participation was a matter of public record and that their neighbors knew whether they voted or not, voter turnout shot up by almost 8 percent.
Deciding to go out to vote should ideally be a subconscious decision that a voter makes on their own. But we’re not there yet, and getting there requires targeted efforts that can make the advantages of voting clear as day. Knowing what affects voter turnout will help us target and compile the right strategies to get people out to the polls.