What Affects Voter Turnout Rates

What Affects Voter Turnout Rates?

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. 

Electoral Competitiveness: 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%.

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 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.

Voting Laws: Voter registration laws, voter identification laws, early voting, and polling place accessibility can also affect voter 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. Citizens 18-29 years old typically turn out at a rate more than 10 points lower than citizens aged 30 years and older.

Race/ethnicity: Voter turnout also varies by race and ethnicity. In 2016, turnout among eligible white voters is estimated at 65%. On the other hand, turnout among Black voters and Hispanic voters was estimated at 60%, 45%, and 45% respectively. 

Gender: Women's voter turnout has surpassed men's in every presidential election since 1980. In the 2016 election, 63.3% of eligible women voters cast a ballot, compared to only 59.3% of eligible male voters.

Socio-economic status: Wealthy Americans vote at much higher rates than those of lower socio-economic status. During the 2016 presidential election, 50% of eligible voters in households earning less than $50,000 per year cast a ballot, compared to 69% turnout among voters with a household income higher than $50,000 per year. 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 their wealthy constituents are more likely to vote.

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