Voter Turnout is a fundamental quality of fair elections and is generally considered to be a necessary factor for a healthy democracy. Low turnout is usually attributed to disengagement from the system because of perceived effectiveness of voting in changing policy decisions. As a result “established” democracies with free elections usually have higher turnout than other states.
In all national elections, turnout in the United States has a history of rising and falling over time, although it has never risen to levels of turnout in most of the well-established democracies in other nations. After rising sharply from 1948 to 1960, turnout declined in nearly every election until dropping to barely half of eligible voters in 1988. Since 1988, it has fluctuated, from a low of 52.6% of eligible voters (and 49.1% of voting age population) in 1996 to a high of 61% of eligible voters in 2004, the highest level since 1968.
Turnout in midterm elections is far lower, peaking at 48.7% in 1966 and falling as low as 39.0% in 1978,1986, and 1998 remaining below 50% in midterm elections (see Graph). Even at its highest level in 1960, the percent of eligible Americans who turned out to vote never surpassed 65%. This is still substantially lower than in almost all established democracies; turnout is 70-75% in Canada and well over 80% in most other democracies, including 86.8% in the first round of the French presidential election and 91.7% in the 2004 proportional representation election for Luxembourg’s legislature.
Low turnout is most pronounced in off-year elections for state legislators and local officials as well as primaries. In many cities, for example, mayors of major cities often are elected with single-digit turnout ; for example, turnout was only 5 percent of registered voters in a recent Dallas mayoral election, 6 percent in Charlotte, and 7 percent in Austin. Congressional primaries have similarly low turnout; for example, turnout was only 7 percent in a recent Tennessee primary, and was only 3 percent for a U.S. Senate primary in Texas. A statewide gubernatorial election in Kentucky has a turnout of only 6 percent since Kentucky gubernatorial elections are held in the off-off-year between mid-term congressional election and presidential elections was scheduled at a time when there were no elections for federal office. North Carolina’s runoff elections have seen turnout as low as 3 percent in statewide elections.
Furthermore, there are enormous disparities that exist in America across income levels in all forms of participation, particularly voting. A study on these disparities found that 86% of people with incomes above $75,000 claim to have voted in presidential elections as compared with only 52% of people with incomes under $15,000. As a result of the participation disparity across demographic lines, politicians are more responsive to the opinions of high-income constituents. A study of roll call votes under the 107th and 108th Congresses reported that legislators were three times more responsive to high-income constituents than middle-income constituents and were the least responsive to the needs of low-income constituents.
The current barriers to voting, such as registration and the untimely scheduling of elections during the workweek, further expand the disparity in turnout between low and high-income voters. Therefore, the removal of barriers has the potential to not only increase turnout, but also to narrow the gap in voting disparities.
However, turnout decline cannot be blamed on any one electoral rule because voter motivation is by far the biggest factor involving participation. Rules like voter registration laws, early voting and polling place accessibility that affect voter access matter, but the exact same election administration rules in the same electorate can result in 60% turnout in one election and 2% in another depending on what is on the ballot and whether the election has essentially already been decided.
Indeed barriers are typically most limiting in our highest turnout elections, with long lines making it take longer to vote. When addressing motivation, however, there are a range of factors, such as voter perceptions of the importance of the choice, how close the election is, and how much different potential outcomes will affect their lives – with perception sometimes not matching reality due to voter education. Some institution changes will increase the motivation to vote by making a vote matter more and by giving voters more choices, thereby increasing turnout substantially. FairVote advocates a number of systemic electoral reforms that reverse the contextual reasons for low turnout.
Proportional representation, which is a system that better represents the varied choices and beliefs of the electorate, is usually associated with higher turnout in contrast with winner-take-all plurality districts. A National Popular Vote (NPV) with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) would also better represent the views of members of minority parties. IRV would also reduce negative campaigning with the proliferation of multiple opposition candidates. These both are associated with higher levels of turnout, especially among minorities and young people, in the United States and abroad. Finally, FairVote advocates Universal Voter Registration to make the voting process easier. The barrier of registration in the United States has been estimated to deter voters and decrease turnout by as much as 10 percent. Furthermore, registration barriers that depress turnout contribute to the "socioeconomic skew" of elections in which the wealthy are more likely to turnout than low-income voters. Thus Universal Voter Registration would likely reduce class barriers to voting. There are also a number of turnout boosting institutional changes that are issues not represented by FairVote. Compulsory voting, alternative voting options (e.g. voting by mail, advance voting, multiple voting days), and a national election holiday would substantially increase voter turnout.