On Point . . .

 Why is voting turnout so low in the United States?

Steven Schier, The Daily Record Newswire

Turnout in next month’s midterm elections will be remarkably low by international standards. Just 37 percent of America’s voting age population appeared at the polls in 2010. Estimates for 2012 peg turnout at probably around 40 percent.

Americans are noted for their lukewarm levels of participation as compared with voters in most world democracies, especially those of Western Europe. There, turnout in national legislative elections ranges from 58 to 85 percent.

An often-heard explanation of low turnout in the United States is that Americans are unusually disaffected from politics and that abstention from voting is their method of showing their disapproval of, or alienation from, the political system. Scholars have been deeply interested in the subject of political alienation, but they have shown that this explanation of low turnout is at best incomplete.

There are several elements to their demonstration. First, scholars note that the constellation of sentiments associated with alienation — disaffection, loss of trust in government and so on — are more prevalent, on the whole, in many countries where turnout is relatively high. Citizens of the United States increasingly voice negative feelings about government.

Americans, however, rank comparatively high in other forms of political participation: expressing interest in politics, discussing politics with others, trying to persuade others during elections, and working for candidates or parties of their choice. Within the United States, people who don’t like or don’t trust government vote about as frequently as people who do.

A better explanation for what really distinguishes Americans from their more participatory counterparts elsewhere is the existence of stringent voter registration requirements in the United States. Most other democratic nations either consider all of their citizens to be automatically registered to vote, requiring no special initiative on the part of the prospective voter, or combine voter registration with enrollment for government benefits such as health insurance or pension programs.

In contrast, every American state except North Dakota requires citizens to apply to their city, town, or county government specifically in order to participate in elections, including presidential elections. In most states, registration must be completed at least thirty days before the election, when political interest among the public has yet to peak.

Moreover, American citizens must register all over again each time they change address, even when they move within the same state or city. Unsurprisingly, the costs imposed by this system of voter registration depress American participation rates relative to those in Europe. The turnout of registered voters in the United States is, in fact, comparable to that of other democratic nations in our presidential elections; 68 percent of registered voters participated in 2012.

Voting itself takes place not on a national holiday, as in some countries, or over a weekend, but on a regular weekday — for presidential elections, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Declining national turnout rates from the 1960s to the 1990s prompted a series of public initiatives intended to reduce the burdens of registration and participation on prospective voters. In 1993, Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as the “motor voter” law. This legislation required voter registration forms to be available at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other government offices in every state, allowed registration by mail-in form, and compelled states to allow citizens to register up to 30 days before an election.

The “motor voter” law was widely expected to benefit Democrats, whose popular constituencies (especially low-income citizens and ethnic minorities) tended to be underrepresented on the voting rolls. In practice, however, though the law appeared to have a minor positive impact on turnout rates, it produced no significant effect on the partisan affiliation of the American electorate.

Several states took additional measures to encourage voter turnout. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and a few other states introduced same-day voter registration, under which an unregistered citizen may go to a polling place on Election Day, register to vote, and immediately cast a ballot.

The turnout rate in these states is noticeably higher. Other states loosened eligibility requirements for absentee ballots, which were once reserved for those unable to vote in person due to travel or illness. For example, California now allows any voter to register as a “permanent absentee” and receive a ballot automatically by mail before each election; fully 51 percent of the state’s vote in 2012 was cast by absentee ballot.

Oregon has dispensed with the traditional polling place altogether, conducting its elections entirely by mail. And 33 states in 2012, including California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Tennessee, offered early voting, allowing voters to cast ballots in person at designated places in the weeks before Election Day.

These reforms may have helped to produce a rebound in the national turnout rate in the presidential elections after 1996, when it reached a modern nadir of slightly over 50 percent of the eligible adult population, although a series of closely-fought elections and renewed voter mobilization efforts by political parties and interest groups have also likely contributed to the recent rise in mass participation.

In any case, voters clearly welcome the opportunity to escape the hassles and long lines of Election Day polling places in states where alternative voting procedures are available. In the 2012 election, an estimated 32 million citizens, or 24.5 percent of the national electorate, cast ballots via absentee or early voting (as compared with only 7 percent in 1992); in 10 states, more than half of all votes were cast in advance of the nominal date of the election. Candidates and campaigns must compete in an electoral world in which voting increasingly occurs in stages over a period of several weeks rather than on a single day nationwide.

Still, many potential voters are kept out of the electorate. Non-citizens are not allowed to vote, whether legal or illegal aliens. Most states strip convicted felons of their voting rights while incarcerated or on parole; in eight states, this disenfranchisement may stand for life even if the sentence is completed. These groups are not insignificant in size. Political scientist Michael P. McDonald has estimated the number of ineligible voting-age residents as roughly 19 million people as of 2012, about one-thirteenth of the adult population of the United States.

There is no convincing evidence that the basic human nature of Americans differs from that of citizens of other democratic lands. But the United States has organized itself differently — state by state rather than as a unitary nation — to do political business. The right to vote is administered in a more decentralized fashion than in most democracies, and its exercise requires more initiative on the part of the prospective voter (in the form of registration before the election at each new residential address).

That seems better than any other explanation to account for much of the difference in turnout between American presidential elections and parliamentary elections in other comparable nations.


Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.



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