Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy. As low turnout is usually attributed to political disengagement and the belief that voting for one candidate/party or another will do little to alter public policy, "established" democracies tend have higher turnout than other counties. However, voter turnout in the U.S. is much lower than most established democracies. In this section we present research on voter turnout in the United States and the steps we might take to increase voter turnout.
Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections. In recent elections, about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections. Turnout is lower for odd year, primary and local elections.
Voter turnout also varies considerably from state to state. In 2014, smaller, less urbanized states in the northern part of the country tended to have higher voter turnout than other states. The same pattern presented in the 2014 presidential election, with small states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Hampshire having the highest voter turnout.
Turnout also varies much within states. For example, in California in 2014, voter turnout ranged from 22.6% in Imperial County in Southern California to 65.0% in Sierra County up in northern California.
By international standards, voter turnout is a little 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%.
Voter turnout can be measured in different ways, with different denominators. It can be expressed as a percentage of the number of eligible voters (“voting eligible population turnout”), registered voters (“registered voter turnout”) or the population that is old enough to vote ("Voting age population turnout").
It is quite 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).
For a full discussion of these issues, read Haley Smith's blog, "Voter Turnout: Behind the Numbers."
Turnout varies greatly by state. In the 2012 Presidential Election, 76% of eligible Minnesotans cast ballots, whereas only 45% of eligible Hawaiians did. Many different factors influence voter turnout levels.
Electoral Competitiveness: One of the most important factors is the competitiveness of the presidential election in each state. Overall, 66% of eligible voters turned out to the polls in the nation's 12 most competitive states in 2012, but only 57% did in the nation's 39 other states (including the District of Columbia).
Election Type: Low turnout is most pronounced in primary elections, off-year elections for state legislators, and local elections. For example, a 2013 study of 340 mayoral elections in 144 U.S. cities from 1996-2012 found that voter turnout in those cities averaged at 25.8%. In many cities, mayors have been elected with single-digit turnout. For example, turnout in Dallas' 1999 mayoral election was a mere 5%.
Run-off elections for all offices also tend to have lower turnout that first round elections, especially if the first round election takes place on the same day as several other elections. For example, of 171 regularly scheduled primary runoffs for U.S House and U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2012, all but six of them resulted in a turnout decrease between the initial primary and the runoff, meaning that 96.5% of federal runoff elections had fewer people voting in the second round than in the first. The average reduction in turnout was 35.3%. Additionally, the longer the wait between the initial primary and the runoff, the higher the decrease in voter turnout between elections. Primary elections with a gap of more than thirty days had a median decline in voter participation of 48.1%, while those with a gap of twenty days or less had a median decline of 15.4%.
Voting Laws: Voter registration laws, voter identification laws, early voting, and polling place accessibility can also affect voter turnout, though not always in the ways that we might expect. For example, the introduction of early voting, which was intended to make voting easier and increase turnout, appears to have actually decreased turnout.
Demographics: In the aggregate, voters tend to be older, wealthier, more educated and whiter than non-voters.
Age: Young people are much less likely to vote than older ones. From 1972 to 2012, citizens 18-29 years old turned out at a rate 15 to 20 points lower than citizens 30 year and older.
Race/ethnicity: Voter turnout also varies by race and ethnicity. In 2012, turnout rates among eligible white and black voters was 64.1% and 66.2%, respectively, while it was only 48.0% and 47.3% among Latino and Asian American voters respectively. The 2012 election was the first presidential election since Reconstruction ended in which black turnout exceeded white turnout.
Gender: Women's voter turnout has surpassed men's in every presidential election since 1980. In the 2012 election, 7.8 more women than men voted. Interestingly though, older women are actually less like to vote than older men. In 2008, 72.2% of men 75 years and older voted, compared to only 64.9% of women that age.
Socio-economic status: Wealthy Americans vote at much higher rates than those of lower socio-economic status. During the 2008 presidential election, only 41% of eligible voters making less than $15,000 a year voted, compared to 78% of those making $150,000 a year or more. Studies have shown that this difference in turnout affects public policy: politicians are more likely to respond to the desires of their wealthy constituents than of their poorer constituents, in part because more of their wealthy constituents vote.
FairVote advocates a number of systemic electoral reforms that reverse the contextual reasons for low turnout.
Fair Representation Voting for legislative elections would allow for outcomes that better represent the diverse beliefs of the electorate, and could therefore combat the low voter turnout that we see in many winner-take-all plurality districts, where choices are limited.
A National Popular Vote (NPV) for president, which would make every vote in every state equally valuable in every election, would expand presidential campaigns from just ten states to all 50. As voter turnout is markedly lower in states that receive no presidential campaign attention, the reallocation of campaign resources to include non-battleground states would likely increase turnout in those states.
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for other single seat offices like mayor and governor would better represent the views of third party and independent voters, as more candidates would be inclined to run. Therefore, voters who might not feel that their views are represented in a two-party race would turn out to the polls to support their preferred candidate.
Universal Voter Registration would modernize voter registration in the United States, making government responsible for maintaining accurate and complete voter rolls, shifting our system from its current opt-in structure to an opt-out structure.
Learn more about voter turnout in the U.S. and abroad at these sites.