Voter Turnout

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One of the distinguishing features of the American political system is the remarkably low levels of voter turnout it experiences. In the years since 1971, when 18 years olds received the right to vote as a result of the Vietnam War inspired 27th Amendment, voter turnout as a precentage of voting age population (and registered voters), in Presidential elections (which consistently have the highest voter turnout) has been as follows with Voting Age Population show first and then (Registered Voters).

  • 1972 55.21% (79.85%)
  • 1976 53.55% (77.64%)
  • 1980 52.56% (76.53%)
  • 1984 53.11% (74.63%)
  • 1988 50.11% (72.48%)
  • 1992 55.09% (78.01%)
  • 1996 49.08% (65.97%)
  • 2000 51.30% (67.50%)

The highest percentage of eligible voters since the 1928 Presidential election has been 63.06% (in 1960). (Women received the right to vote nationwide in 1920). In 2000, the total number of votes cast and counted was 105,586,274. The percentage of the voting age population that is registered to vote in the United States is 76%.

Voter turnout is usually ten to thirty percentage points lower in elections other than Presidential elections (such as state and local general elections and primary elections) than it is in elections where a Presidential race is at issue.

Most developed nations have voter turnout rates closer to 67-90%+ of voting age population in national elections. According to International IDEA, in in the 1990s turnout as a precentage of voting age population by country in Parliamentary elections in various nations was as follows (data converted from % of registered voter data in source to precentage of voting age population below, based on percentage of population registered to vote in the most recent election in the country, since voter registration laws vary by country):

(Note, some of the lowest rates may be due to large voting aged populations who are unable to vote because they are not citizens). The United States number comparable to that above (the average turnout as percentage of voting age population in national elections in the 1990s) is 52.1%.

The average non-voter who is eligible to vote is less educated, less affluent, more likely to be a member of a minority group, more likely to be urban, and younger than the average vote (see here). (Non-citizens, persons currently in prison, and in many Southern States, felons who have completed their sentences, are not eligible to vote). Demographically, non-voters in the United States much more closely resemble Democrats than they do Republicans. Thus, American voter turnout trends make the United States electorate significantly more conservative than the electorates of other developed countries.

Put another way, if elections in the United States had even a typical 80% of voting age population turnout in Presidential election years, roughly 59 million more votes would be cast, and those voters would disproportionately vote Democratic. Even if those voters were skewed only 60-40 towards Democrats, that change would have, in 2000, increased every Democrat's performance by three percentage points, which would have produced a Democratic President, a Democratic party controlled U.S. Senate, and a Democratic party controlled U.S. House.

The reasons that the United States has persistently low voter turnout compared to other countries is a subject of considerable debate. Some scholars point to increasing apathy about our political process drive by factors like negative advertising. Others scholars point to a single member district political system that makes many people's vote largely irrelevant in areas where one party or another is dominant, and ot a lack of desirable ballot choices that results from a two party system. Some scholars point to long and complex ballots containing elections for City, County, State and Federal candidates, and with so many of those candidates that fully informed voting is almost impossible. Some scholars point to the mechanics of the election such as holding elections on a single, non-holiday weekday during a month when many college-aged voters are at away from their parent's home, requiring registration well in advance of the election in order to vote, failing to publicize the location of polling places, discouraging voting by college students, and not legally requiring either voter registration or attendance at a polling place, as many nations do.

Whatever the reason, increasing voter turnout is potentially one of the most promising means by which progressives can make a long term positive shift in the political makeup of the American electorate, and as a result, see more progressive public policies instituted by those people who are elected. Therefore, increasing voter turnout should be a priority for the progressive movement.

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