It is hard to have government of, by, and for the people if the people are not participating. Public participation has been called the “lifeblood” of democracy, and this is particularly true of that most central of democratic institutions: elections. Democracies can’t work well if people don’t vote. People need to vote in order to throw out the politicians they don’t like and install the ones that will enact the policies that they want. But what if many or most people don’t turn out to vote? That is the situation we have in this country. Voter turnout in the U.S. is abysmal—especially compared to other Western countries — and this threatens to weaken our democracy. And to make matters worse, instead of trying to catch up with these other nations, politicians in some states have been actually trying to discourage more people from voting.
How bad is voter turnout in the United States? In 2016 we had near record turnout – 56%. Some saw this as matter for celebration. But there’s no question that most other advanced democracies do better – much better. Consider Belgium where recent voter turnout was 88% — or Sweden 87%, Australia 91%, Norway 78%, Italy 73%, the Netherlands 82% and Germany 76%. On an OECD list of advanced Western democracies, we rank 26th out of 32 countries. It is even worse on a worldwide scale, where we rank 138th out of 172 democracies for voter turnout. And that is if we are considering the relatively high U.S. turnout in presidential election years. Turnout is even lower if you look at off-year Congressional elections in the United States, where turnout in 2014 hit a 70 year low with only 33% of voting age Americans going to the polls. On a worldwide scale, we rank 138th out of 172 democracies for voter turnout.
On a worldwide scale, we rank 138th out of 172 democracies for voter turnout.
Things look even worse if we consider congressional primary elections. Most congressional seats are in “safe” districts where one party has a large majority of the voters. In a Republican safe district, for example, the Republican primary essentially decides who is going to win the seat. But turnout in primary elections is notoriously low – usually between 10% and 20% – so the victor may win with the support of only a small fraction of the eligible voters.
But why is this necessarily bad? Because low turnout undermines many of the key aspects of a democracy – namely majority rule, fair representation, and policy responsiveness. To see how, let’s do some simple math. Consider an off-year election for the House of Representatives and assume a relatively normal turnout of 40%. Let’s say the winning candidate in a House district wins by a generous majority of 60% of the vote. That means the victorious politician is elected by only 24% of the possible voters (60% of 40%). So in reality, this is minority rule. Multiply this by 435 House seats, and it calls into question how representative of the public the entire House of Representatives is and whether the policies they pass actually reflect the will of the people. Winning candidates like to claim that they have a mandate from the public, but the math of low voter turnout makes that claim highly suspect.
In principle, the fewer people who vote, the more it undermines the workings of a representative democracy. Elected officials can safely ignore the wishes of large segments of the population. And citizens who don’t vote are less likely to identify with elected officials or the policies they pass. On the other hand, the more people that vote, the better our democracy works, and the better chance that our government actually represents the majority of citizens and passes the policies that they want. So when voter turnout is as abysmally low as it is in the United States, this is a serious political problem.
The Political Bias in Low Voter Turnout
Low voter turnout is also a problem because it carries with it a strong political bias. This is because different groups in society turn out at different rates. For example, the elderly vote at higher rates than the young. And there is a strong class bias to voting. Those with high incomes vote at much higher rates than those with low incomes. For example, Demos has reported that people making more than $150,000 vote at a rate 30% higher than people making less than $10,000. Since African Americans and Hispanic Americans tend to be disproportionately poor and working class compared to whites, this income bias in voting is also a racial and ethnic bias. European democracies, with their much higher voting rates, do not have this kind of strong income bias in voter turnout.
The well-off and the elderly turn out at much higher rates and tend to favor the Republicans.
Studies have shown that differences in who votes and who does not clearly tend to hurt the Democrats and help the Republicans. Non-voters are more liberal and more likely to support such things as higher taxes, larger government with more services, more federal aid to education, and universal, government-provided health care. The well-off and the elderly turn out at much higher rates and tend to favor the Republicans – and lower taxes, smaller government, and fewer services.
There is a great deal of evidence that the class bias in voter turnout has direct impacts on public policies. International studies have found that countries with low turnout like the United States tend to have weaker social welfare programs and higher rates of economic inequality than nations with high voter participation. Research on the state level has found that states with lower levels of class bias in turnout (where the poor turnout in higher numbers) tend to have higher minimum wages, higher spending on social welfare programs, and less restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits. Conversely, states that have larger gaps in turnout between the rich and poor tend to have policies which favor the wealthy. The authors of one of these studies concluded that “an electorate disproportionately representative of high-class citizens will be rewarded with public policies in favor of its interests and at the expense of lower-class citizens.” In short, low voter turnout matters.
Actively Discouraging Voters
Republicans, not satisfied with how current differences in group turnout work to their advantage, have embarked on an effort to further reduce Democratic voting. They argue that the country is plagued with voter fraud and states need to pass voting identification laws to reduce this pressing problem. But virtually all experts agree that there is no credible evidence of rampant voter fraud. According to one key study, out of a billion votes cast between 2004 and 2014, there were only 31 cases of voter impersonation. As one expert concluded, “studies show that the kind of fraud that these laws are supposedly enacted to prevent happens less frequently than Americans being struck by lightning.” But this has not stopped the GOP. Thirty-three states have now enacted some kind of voter ID law.
Republicans know very well that the people most likely to lack the proper IDs are disproportionately the young, the poor, and minorities – who just coincidentally tend to vote Democratic. One Republican state senator in Wisconsin openly acknowledged this when in 2011 she spoke in favor of passing a voter ID law to a closed-door meeting of Republican senators: “We’ve got to think about what this could mean for the neighborhoods around Milwaukee and the college campuses.” Seventy percent of the state’s African Americans live in Milwaukee. Significant numbers of people may be discouraged by these ID laws. The Brennan Center for Justice has reported that sixteen million registered voters in the U.S. do not have a government-issued photo ID. And in Texas alone, 600,000 people lack the type of photo ID needed to vote in that state.
Unfortunately, voter ID laws are not the only way to discourage voting. Many Republican states have also passed legislation to reduce early voting, erect new barriers to registration – both of which discourage more Democratic than Republican voters. Also, over six million men and women, disproportionately African Americans and Hispanics, are barred from voting because they are felons – a limitation to the right to vote non-existent in almost all other democracies.
Even more subtle forms of discouragement are also being used. Precincts in Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina with higher percentages of African American and Hispanic voters also tend to have fewer voting machines. Nationally, six times more Hispanics than Whites report a 30 minute or longer wait at the polls. And four times more African Americans than Whites report these long wait.
No other advanced democracy has engaged in this kind of voter suppression crusade.
So instead of making it easier for people to vote, we are actually making it harder – all to rig elections in favor of one particular party. And things could get much worse. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that in the wake of President Trump’s baseless allegations of massive fraud in the 2020 elections, Republicans in state legislatures have introduced over 200 new bills that would further restrict voting. Needless to say, no other advanced democracy has engaged in this kind of voter suppression crusade. People in Europe must be awfully perplexed about what they see happening in our country.
How Other Democracies Do It Better
Why do we lag so far behind other democracies in voter turnout? One conventional explanation puts the blame on American citizens. It is suggested that Americans are more apathetic and apolitical than citizens in other democracies. We are a country of individualists who have little interest in politics or elections, so we don’t vote. It’s just part of our political culture. But there is little evidence to support this theory. In fact, studies have found that Americans show a higher interest in politics and actually discuss politics more than citizens in most other democracies. Americans also tend to participate in other ways, such as lobbying their representatives, at higher rates than citizens in European countries. So apathy is not the problem.
Election scholars have long known that the higher turnout rates in other democracies have little to do with their citizens, and everything to do with the different election rules and practices that are in use there. For one thing, these countries make it as easy as possible to vote. Take voter registration. In the U.S, it is the individual’s responsibility to register – so you usually have to remember to register months ahead of time, fill out a form, etc. Virtually all European democracies have universal registration, where the national government takes responsibility for automatically registering everyone eligible to vote. It doesn’t matter if you moved to another city or state, or got married and changed your name. You don’t have to do anything to ensure that you can vote.
Most other advanced democracies are smart enough to hold elections on holidays or over the weekend.
Also, most other advanced democracies are smart enough to hold elections on holidays or over the weekend. This is not only more convenient, but also reduces long lines at the polls (a major complaint in the U.S.) by spreading voting out during the day or giving people two days to vote. We continue the archaic practice of holding elections on a busy workday – Tuesday – which makes it more inconvenient for people to vote. Being busy with things like work or school is the most often cited reason that Americans give for not voting.
Another proven way to increase turnout is to adopt compulsory voting. Over two dozen other democracies use it, including several of the countries with the highest turnout rates, like Australia and Belgium. It is not as onerous as it might sound. The penalty is usually a small fine, and if you really don’t want to vote you need only show up at the polls and hand in an empty ballot.
An Important Factor: Differing Voting Systems
Studies comparing elections around the world have found that the American voting system itself also tends to depress turnout. We elect legislators with a single-member district, winner-take-all (WTA) voting system. Members are elected one at a time in districts with the winner being the candidate with the most votes. What many Americans don’t realize is that this voting system actually discourages turnout in several ways.
Our winner-take-all voting system depresses voter turnout.
- Winner-take-all voting creates lots of wasted votes – votes for losing candidates. Only supporters of the winning candidate get representation. People who know their vote will be wasted have less incentive to vote. Imagine you are a Democrat in a predominantly Republican district, or vice versa. The results of the election are a foregone conclusion. Your candidate is going to lose and your vote will be a wasted one. So why bother to vote?
- We know that the more competitive elections are, the more people turn out to vote. But winner-take-all legislative elections are typically not close, often because gerrymandering creates districts where one party has an overwhelming advantage. In these districts, even some supporters of the dominant party may see little reason to turn out, knowing that their candidate will win anyway.
- We know that turnout tends to go up when parties work to get out the vote – reminding people to vote, giving rides to the polls, etc. But in WTA elections, parties will put little effort in getting out the vote in uncompetitive districts where they are greatly outnumbered – preferring to spend their limited resources in districts where they have a good chance of winning.
- Winner-take-all rules also tend to create a two-party system, because only the biggest parties can get the large number of votes needed to win. But large numbers of Americans don’t strongly identify with either the Republican or Democratic party. For them, voting becomes a depressing exercise of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Disturbingly, large numbers of Americans say they go to the polls not to vote for someone they like, but to vote against someone they really dislike. Hardly a good way of generating enthusiasm for voting.
- Third party supporters are especially discouraged by winner-take-all voting. Their candidates are very unlikely to win under these rules, and so their votes will be wasted. Even worse, voting for a third-party candidate can create a spoiler situation, where their support for the candidate they like the most may actually help the candidate they like the least to get elected. For example, supporters of Green candidates take away votes from Democratic candidates which may help the Republican get elected – as happened with George Bush in Florida in 2000. Basically, the WTA system punishes anyone who chooses to vote for a third-party candidate.
Most other advanced Western democracies don’t have these problems because they have abandoned WTA voting and moved on to a different voting system: proportional representation (PR). (For more on the PR alternative, see the article on winner-take-all voting on this site.) Legislators are elected in larger multi-member districts, and each party gets the number of seats that matches its proportion of the vote. In a ten-member district, if the Republicans receive 50% of the vote, they get five seats. A small Green Party might win 10% of the vote and get one seat. This voting system gives people a lot more incentive to turnout. Here’s why.
- PR systems minimize wasted votes and allow 80-90% of citizens to cast effective votes. Almost every voter has a good chance of winning representation – a strong incentive to go to the polls. Even Democrats in a predominantly Republican district have a good reason to vote because they can still win some seats. Instead of a winner-take-all system, PR is an all-are-winners system. By minimizing wasted votes, PR empowers more voters, which is good for democracy.
- PR systems are also more encouraging to third-party supporters, because now they can actually win seats in the legislature. Supporters of third parties do not automatically waste their votes or create spoilers like they do in our winner-take-all system. They can vote for their candidate and actually win some representation – a strong motivation to turn out.
- Proportional representation tends to encourage multi-party systems instead of two-party systems. This allows voting to become a more positive experience, rather than the negative experience of choosing between the lesser of two evils. With a number of viable large and small parties across the political spectrum, it is easier for voters to find a party they are really passionate about and want to turn out to support. If the U.S. were to switch to PR, we would likely see the emergence of several third parties – perhaps a Green Party, a Progressive Party, and a Christian Right Party – whose followers would flock to the polls. Having more alternatives at the polls may be especially important for low-income voters. Both of the major parties get a great deal of their campaign funds from the wealthy and spend most of their time wooing middle-class voters – leaving the poor largely ignored. But with PR, we would probably see the rise of a third party that championed the interests of low-income Americans, perhaps a Bernie Sanders-like Democratic Socialist Party.
- In proportional representation, all districts are competitive and all races are close. Gerrymandering is impossible and all the parties have a good chance of winning seats. Party organizations thus have a strong incentive to get out the vote in all districts, because they can win seats even in districts where they are not the largest party. And increases in party turnout lead to increases in seats won. If the Democrats increase their turnout, from 30% to 40% under PR rules, they get 10% more seats. In our winner-take-all system, a similar increase wins the party nothing in a district – it still loses and all its votes are wasted.
Given all the ways that proportional representation voting gives voters incentives to turn out, it is not surprising that studies of advanced Western democracies have found that PR countries have about a 8-12% higher voter turnout rate than countries that continue to cling to the winner-take-all voting system – like the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada. A 10% increasing in voting in the United States would mean 24 million more people going to the polls.
Increasing voter turnout is not overly complicated. It’s not rocket science, it’s just political science. Most other advanced democracies do a better job at this than we do, and we could simply emulate their reforms and make our elections more democratic. We should adopt an automatic universal registration system. Or lacking that, at least same day registration. We can make voting easier by making election day a holiday, or institute voting on weekends. And we could utilize mail-in ballots, allow early voting, and extend voting hours – all of which would make voting easier and reduce lines at the polls. Adopting proportional representation elections could also be a big help. In addition, we should repeal voter ID laws and other forms of voter suppression legislation, including felon disenfranchisement.
Increasing voter turnout is not rocket science, it’s just political science.
Another important reform would be guaranteeing the right to vote. Astonishingly, this is not a basic constitutional right in the United States – as it is in so many other democracies. We need to pass a constitutional amendment to ensure this right. Such an amendment would allow Congress to create uniform standards across all states to ensure the right to vote and enable the federal courts to strike down voter suppression efforts.
If we really wanted to expand voting participation, we would also consider instituting compulsory voting. If you think about it, there are all sorts of things that the government makes mandatory and that we readily accept. If people want to drive a car, it’s mandatory that they get a driver’s license, that they get their car inspected, and that they have auto insurance. We make jury duty mandatory, so why not do the same thing with voting? It is hardly onerous to require people to vote every few years and it would certainly be in the public interest to have more people voting. And to make it even more acceptable, we could adopt one proposal that combines compulsory voting with a lottery in which those who vote could win cash prizes financed by the fines of nonvoters.
Prospects for Change: Mixed
The prospects for meaningful reform in this area are mixed. On the plus side for reform, 59% of Americans believe that “that everything possible should be done to make it easy for every citizen to vote.” And large majorities support specific reforms to increasing voting: automatic registration 65%; allowing people who committed felonies to vote after serving their sentences 69%; and making election day a national holiday 65%. Curiously, however, 75% also support requiring all voters to show government-issued photo ID – which seems to indicate that they have fallen for Republican assertions that voter fraud is a large issue.
The situation is also mixed on the state level. As seen earlier, Republican controlled state legislatures are passing laws to make it harder to vote and blocking efforts to make it easier. On the other hand, some Democratic controlled states have adopted changes to encourage higher turnout. Eleven states and the District of Columbia now have a form of automatic registration, where eligible citizens who interact with a government agency are registered to vote, unless they opt not to do so. Seventeen states now allow same day registration.
So again we see that our system of federalism is getting in the way of reform. (See the article on federalism for more on the problems this arrangement can cause.) Virtually every other advanced democracy has one unified set of election rules for the entire country. This means that election reforms need only be approved by one national legislature. In the U.S., each state creates its own election rules, which requires that reforms be passed in fifty state legislatures, a much more difficult task for reformers. However, a step in the right direction took place in 2021, when Democrats in Congress introduced the For the People Act, which, if passed, would have a nationwide effect of blocking efforts in Republican states to restrict voting.
Unfortunately, the two reforms that would probably boost turnout the most are non-starters in this country. Unlike mandatory jury duty, which 67% of Americans say is “part of what it means to be a good citizen,” the idea of mandatory voting is very unpopular. It is opposed by two-thirds of the public. And adopting proportional representation elections is so unlikely that pollsters don’t even ask Americans about that reform. Another voting system reform, ranked choice voting for single-winner elections, is gaining some attention in the U.S. It would help to get rid of spoilers and this could increase voting, though probably not as much as PR would.
Overall, while there is some movement in the right direction, we probably cannot expect voter turnout to increase substantially any time soon – and that is not good news for democracy in the United States.
read the next issue: 12. Winner-Take-All Elections