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 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.
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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%.
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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).
For a full discussion of these issues, read Haley Smith's blog, "Voter Turnout: Behind the Numbers."
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.
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Turnout varies greatly by state. In the 2020 presidential election, 80% of eligible voters in Minnesota cast ballots, whereas only 55% of eligible Oklahoman voters did so. Many different factors influence voter turnout levels.
One of the most important factors is the competitiveness of the presidential election in each state. 69% of voters in the ten most competitive states cast a ballot in 2020, compared to the national average of 66%.
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 than first round elections, especially if the first round election takes place on the same day as several other elections. For example, of the 248 primary runoff elections between 1994 and 2020, all but eight resulted in a decrease in turnout between the initial primary and the runoff. The average decline in turnout was 38%. Additionally, the longer the wait between the initial primary and the runoff, the larger the decrease in voter turnout.
Voter registration laws, voter identification laws, early voting, and polling place accessibility can also affect voter turnout.
In the aggregate, Americans who vote tend to be older, wealthier, more educated, and whiter than non-voters. More on these demographic differences:
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.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) 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. Cities that have adopted RCV have seen turnout increase in recent mayoral elections across a variety of contexts.
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.