Voter Turnout


Low voter turnout has long caused the media and others to express concern and frustration. A healthy democratic society is expected to be filled with citizens who vote regularly and participate in the electoral process. Organizations like Rock the Vote and Project Vote Smart (Figure) work alongside MTV to increase voter turnout in all age groups across the United States. But just how low is voter turnout? The answer depends on who is calculating it and how. There are several methods, each of which highlights a different problem with the electoral system in the United States.

Image A is of a tour bus driving along a road. Print on the back of the bus reads “Rock the Vote”. Image B is of Sheryl Crow holding a guitar.
Rock the Vote works with musicians and other celebrities across the country to encourage and register young people to vote (a). Sheryl Crow was one of Rock the Vote’s strongest supporters in the 2008 election, subsequently performing at the Midwest Inaugural Ball in January 2009 (b). (credit a: modification of work by Jeff Kramer; credit b: modification of work by “cliff1066”/Flickr)
Link to learning graphic

Interested in mobilizing voters? Explore Rock the Vote and The Voter Participation Center for more information.

Calculating voter turnout begins by counting how many ballots were cast in a particular election. These votes must be cast on time, either by mail or in person. The next step is to count how many people could have voted in the same election. This is the number that causes different people to calculate different turnout rates. The complete population of the country includes all people, regardless of age, nationality, mental capacity, or freedom. We can count subsections of this population to calculate voter turnout. For instance, the next largest population in the country is the voting-age population (VAP), which consists of persons who are eighteen and older. Some of these persons may not be eligible to vote in their state, but they are included because they are of age to do so.Michael P. McDonald and Samuel Popkin. 2001. “Myth of the Vanishing Voter,” American Political Science Review 95, No. 4: 963–974; See also, “What is the Voting-Age Population (VAP) and the Voting-Eligible Population (VEP)?” (November 12, 2015).

An even smaller group is the voting-eligible population (VEP), citizens eighteen and older who, whether they have registered or not, are eligible to vote because they are citizens, mentally competent, and not imprisoned. If a state has more stringent requirements, such as not having a felony conviction, citizens counted in the VEP must meet those criteria as well. This population is much harder to measure, but statisticians who use the VEP will generally take the VAP and subtract the state’s prison population and any other known group that cannot vote. This results in a number that is somewhat theoretical; however, in a way, it is more accurate when determining voter turnout.McDonald and Popkin, “Myth of the Vanishing Voter,” 963–974.

The last and smallest population is registered voters, who, as the name implies, are citizens currently registered to vote. Now we can appreciate how reports of voter turnout can vary. As Figure shows, although 87 percent of registered voters voted in the 2012 presidential election, this represents only 42 percent of the total U.S. population. While 42 percent is indeed low and might cause alarm, some people included in it are under eighteen, not citizens, or unable to vote due to competency or prison status. The next number shows that just over 57 percent of the voting-age population voted, and 60 percent of the voting-eligible population. The best turnout ratio is calculated using the smallest population: 87 percent of registered voters voted. Those who argue that a healthy democracy needs high voter turnout will look at the voting-age population or voting-eligible population as proof that the United States has a problem. Those who believe only informed and active citizens should vote point to the registered voter turnout numbers instead.

A chart showing the percent of the population that votes in the United States. The first box is labeled “Total population = 313, 914, 040”. Within that box is a box labeled “Voting-age population (VAP) = 235,248,040”. Within that box is a box labeled “Voting-eligible population (VEP) = 222,381,268, 57% of voting-age population (VAP) voted”. Within that box is a box labeled “Registered Voters = 153,157,000, 60% of voting-eligible population (VEP) voted”. Within that box is a box labeled “Votes in 2012 election = 132,948,000, 87% of registered voters voted”.
There are many ways to measure voter turnout depending on whether we calculate it using the total population, the voting-age population (VAP), the voting-eligible population (VEP), or the total number of registered voters.