Voter Turnout


Just as political scientists and campaign managers worry about who does vote, they also look at why people choose to stay home on Election Day. Over the years, studies have explored why a citizen might not vote. The reasons range from the obvious excuse of being too busy (19 percent) to more complex answers, such as transportation problems (3.3 percent) and restrictive registration laws (5.5 percent).“Table 10. Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2012,” (November 2, 2015). With only 57 percent of our voting-age population (VAP) voting in the presidential election of 2012,Table 1. Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2012. Calculated using total number of people voted divided by total population. however, we should examine why the rest do not participate.

One prominent reason for low national turnout is that participation is not mandated. Some countries, such as Belgium and Turkey, have compulsory voting laws, which require citizens to vote in elections or pay a fine. This helps the two countries attain VAP turnouts of 87 percent and 86 percent, respectively, compared to the U.S. turnout of 54 percent. Sweden and Germany automatically register their voters, and 83 percent and 66 percent vote, respectively. Chile’s decision to move from compulsory voting to voluntary voting caused a drop in participation from 87 percent to 46 percent.Drew Desilver. 6 May 2015. “U.S. Voter Turnout trails Most Developed Countries,”

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Do you wonder what voter turnout looks like in other developed countries? Visit the Pew Research Center report on international voting turnout to find out.

Low turnout also occurs when some citizens are not allowed to vote. One method of limiting voter access is the requirement to show identification at polling places. In 2005, the Indiana legislature passed the first strict photo identification law. Voters must provide photo identification that shows their names match the voter registration records, clearly displays an expiration date, is current or has expired only since the last general election, and was issued by the state of Indiana or the U.S. government. Student identification cards that meet the standards and are from an Indiana state school are allowed.“Photo ID Law,” (November 1, 2015). Indiana’s law allows voters without an acceptable identification to obtain a free state identification card.“Obtaining a Photo ID,” (November 1, 2015). The state also extended service hours for state offices that issue identification in the days leading up to elections.“Media Information Guide for Indiana 2014 General Election,” (November 13, 2015).

The photo identification law was quickly contested. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups argued that it placed an unfair burden on people who were poor, older, or had limited finances, while the state argued that it would prevent fraud. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008), the Supreme Court decided that Indiana’s voter identification requirement was constitutional, although the decision left open the possibility that another case might meet the burden of proof required to overturn the law.David Stout, “Supreme Court Upholds Voter Identification Law in Indiana,” New York Times, 29 April 2008; Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008).

In 2011, Texas passed a strict photo identification law for voters, allowing concealed-handgun permits as identification but not student identification. The Texas law was blocked by the Obama administration before it could be implemented, because Texas was on the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance list. Other states, such as Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, and Virginia similarly had laws and districting changes blocked.“Jurisdictions Previously Covered by Section 5,” (November 1, 2015). As a result, Shelby County, Alabama, and several other states sued the U.S. attorney general, arguing the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance list was unconstitutional and that the formula that determined whether states had violated the VRA was outdated. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court agreed. In a 5–4 decision, the justices in the majority said the formula for placing states on the VRA preclearance list was outdated and reached into the states’ authority to oversee elections.Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013). States and counties on the preclearance list were released, and Congress was told to design new guidelines for placing states on the list.

Following the Shelby decision, Texas implemented its photo identification law, leading plaintiffs to bring cases against the state, charging that the law disproportionally affects minority voters.Veasey v. Perry, 574 U. S. ___ (2014). Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia similarly implemented their photo identification laws, joining Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Some of these states offer low-cost or free identification for the purposes of voting or will offer help with the completion of registration applications, but citizens must provide birth certificates or other forms of identification, which can be difficult and/or costly to obtain.

Opponents of photo identification laws argue that these restrictions are unfair because they have an unusually strong effect on some demographics. One study, done by Reuters, found that requiring a photo ID would disproportionally prevent citizens aged 18–24, Hispanics, and those without a college education from voting. These groups are unlikely to have the right paperwork or identification, unlike citizens who have graduated from college. The same study found that 4 percent of households with yearly incomes under $25,000 said they did not have an ID that would be considered valid for voting.Patricia Zengerle. 26 September 2012. “Young, Hispanics, Poor Hit Most by US Voter ID Laws: Study,”

Another reason for not voting is that polling places may be open only on Election Day. This makes it difficult for voters juggling school, work, and child care during polling hours (Figure). Many states have tried to address this problem with early voting, which opens polling places as much as two weeks early. Texas opened polling places on weekdays and weekends in 1988 and initially saw an increase in voting in gubernatorial and presidential elections, although the impact tapered off over time.Stefan D. Haag, “Early Voting in Texas: What are the Effects?” Austin Community College CPPPS Report, (November 1, 2015). Other states with early voting, however, showed a decline in turnout, possibly because there is less social pressure to vote when voting is spread over several days.Rich Morin. 23 September 2013. “Early Voting Associated with Lower Turnout,” Early voting was used in a widespread manner across most states in 2016, including Nevada, where 60 percent of votes were cast prior to Election Day.

An image of several people standing in line outside of a building. A sign near the front of the line and the building entrance reads “Vote Here”.
On February 5, 2008, dubbed “Super Duper Tuesday” by the press, twenty-four states held caucuses or primary elections—the largest simultaneous number of state presidential primary elections in U.S. history. As a result, over half the Democratic delegates were allocated unusually early in the election season. This polling station, on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, had long lines, commonly seen only on Election Day, and nearly ran out of Democratic ballots. (credit: Josh Thompson)

In a similar effort, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington have moved to a mail-only voting system in which there are no polling locations, only mailed ballots. These states have seen a rise in turnout, with Colorado’s numbers increasing from 1.8 million votes in the 2010 congressional elections to 2 million votes in the 2014 congressional elections.The Denver Post Editorial Board, “A Vote of Confidence for Mail Elections in Colorado,” Denver Post, 10 November 2014. One argument against early and mail-only voting is that those who vote early cannot change their minds during the final days of the campaign, such as in response to an “October surprise,” a highly negative story about a candidate that leaks right before Election Day in November. (For example, a week before the 2000 election, a Dallas Morning News journalist reported that George W. Bush had lied about whether he had been arrested for driving under the influence.Brian Knowlton, “Disclosure of His 1976 Arrest for Drunken Driving Shakes Campaign, but Voter Reaction Is Uncertain: A November Surprise for Bush,” New York Times, 4 November 2000.) In 2016, two such stories, one for each nominee, broke just prior to Election Day. First, the Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape showed a braggadocian Donald Trump detailing his ability to do what he pleases with women, including grabbing at their genitals. This tape led some Republican officeholders, such as Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), to disavow Trump. However, perhaps eclipsing this episode was the release by FBI director James Comey of a letter to Congress re-opening the Hillary Clinton email investigation a mere eleven days prior to the election. It is impossible to know the exact dynamics of how someone decides to vote, but one theory is that women jumped from Trump after the Access Hollywood tape emerged, only to go back to supporting him when the FBI seemed to reopen its investigation.

Apathy may also play a role. Some people avoid voting because their vote is unlikely to make a difference or the election is not competitive. If one party has a clear majority in a state or district, for instance, members of the minority party may see no reason to vote. Democrats in Utah and Republicans in California are so outnumbered that they are unlikely to affect the outcome of an election, and they may opt to stay home. Because the presidential candidate with the highest number of popular votes receives all of Utah’s and California’s electoral votes, there is little incentive for some citizens to vote: they will never change the outcome of the state-level election. These citizens, as well as those who vote for third parties like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, are sometimes referred to as the chronic minority. While third-party candidates sometimes win local or state office or even dramatize an issue for national discussion, such as when Ross Perot discussed the national debt during his campaign as an independent presidential candidate in 1992, they never win national elections.

Finally, some voters may view non-voting as a means of social protest or may see volunteering as a better way to spend their time. Younger voters are more likely to volunteer their time rather than vote, believing that serving others is more important than voting.Harvard IOP, “Trump, Carson Lead Republican Primary; Sanders Edging Clinton Among Democrats, Harvard IOP Poll Finds,” news release, December 10, 2015, Possibly related to this choice is voter fatigue. In many states, due to our federal structure with elections at many levels of government, voters may vote many times per year on ballots filled with candidates and issues to research. The less time there is between elections, the lower the turnout.C. Rallings, M. Thrasher, and G. Borisyuk. 2003. “Seasonal Factors, Voter Fatigue and the Costs of Voting,” Electoral Studies 22, No. 1: 65–79.