Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot
in an election. Eligibility varies by country, and the voting-eligible
population should not be confused with the total adult population. Age
and citizenship status are often among the criteria used to determine
eligibility, but some countries further restrict eligibility based on
sex, race, and/or religion.
After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of
decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the
1980s. In general, low turnout is attributed to disillusionment,
indifference, or a sense of futility (the perception that one's vote
won't make any difference).
Low turnout is usually considered to be undesirable. As a result,
there have been many efforts to increase voter turnout and encourage
participation in the political process. In spite of significant study
into the issue, scholars are divided on the reasons for the decline.
Its cause has been attributed to a wide array of economic,
demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors.
Different countries have very different voter turnout rates. For
example, turnout in the
United States 2012 presidential election was
about 55%. In both Belgium, which has compulsory voting, and
Malta, which does not, participation reaches about 95%.
1 Reasons for voting
1.1 Reasons for not voting
3 Determinants and demographics of turnout
3.2 Childhood influences
3.4 Differences between elections
3.4.1 Competitiveness of races
3.6 Access to polling places
3.7 Costs of participation
3.10 Hereditary factors
3.11 Parents to newly enfranchised voters
4 International differences
4.1 Cultural factors
4.2 Institutional factors
4.2.1 Voter registration
4.2.2 Compulsory voting
4.2.5 Ease of voting
4.2.6 Voter fatigue
5 Measuring turnout
6 Trends of decreasing turnout since the 1980s
6.1 Reasons for decline
9 Further reading
Reasons for voting
The chance of any one vote determining the outcome is low. Some
studies show that a single vote in a voting scheme such as the
Electoral College in the
United States has an even lower chance of
determining the outcome. Other studies claim that the Electoral
College actually increases voting power. Studies using game theory,
which takes into account the ability of voters to interact, have also
found that the expected turnout for any large election should be
The basic formula for determining whether someone will vote, on the
questionable assumption that people act completely rationally, is
P is the probability that an individual's vote will affect the outcome
of an election,
B is the perceived benefit that would be received if that person's
favored political party or candidate were elected,
D originally stood for democracy or civic duty, but today represents
any social or personal gratification an individual gets from voting,
C is the time, effort, and financial cost involved in voting.
Since P is virtually zero in most elections, PB is also near zero, and
D is thus the most important element in motivating people to vote. For
a person to vote, these factors must outweigh C. Experimental
political science has found that even when P is likely greater than
zero, this term has no effect on voter turnout. Enos and Fowler (2014)
conducted a field experiment that exploits the rare opportunity of a
tied election for major political office. Informing citizens that the
special election to break the tie will be close (meaning a high P
term) has little mobilizing effect on voter turnout.
Riker and Ordeshook developed the modern understanding of D. They
listed five major forms of gratification that people receive for
voting: complying with the social obligation to vote; affirming one's
allegiance to the political system; affirming a partisan preference
(also known as expressive voting, or voting for a candidate to express
support, not to achieve any outcome); affirming one's importance to
the political system; and, for those who find politics interesting and
entertaining, researching and making a decision. Other political
scientists have since added other motivators and questioned some of
Riker and Ordeshook's assumptions. All of these
concepts are inherently imprecise, making it difficult to discover
exactly why people choose to vote.
Recently, several scholars have considered the possibility that B
includes not only a personal interest in the outcome, but also a
concern for the welfare of others in the society (or at least other
members of one's favorite group or party). In particular,
experiments in which subject altruism was measured using a dictator
game showed that concern for the well-being of others is a major
factor in predicting turnout and political participation.
Note that this motivation is distinct from D, because voters must
think others benefit from the outcome of the election, not their act
of voting in and of itself.
Reasons for not voting
There are philosophical, moral, and practical reasons that some people
cite for not voting in electoral politics. Robert LeFevre, Francis
Tandy, John Pugsley, Frank Chodorov, George H. Smith, Carl Watner,
Wendy McElroy, and
Lysander Spooner are some moderately well-known
authors who have written about these reasons.
High voter turnout is often considered to be desirable, though among
political scientists and economists specializing in public choice, the
issue is still debated. A high turnout is generally seen as
evidence of the legitimacy of the current system. Dictators have often
fabricated high turnouts in showcase elections for this purpose. For
instance, Saddam Hussein's 2002 plebiscite was claimed to have had
100% participation. Opposition parties sometimes boycott votes
they feel are unfair or illegitimate, or if the election is for a
government that is considered illegitimate. For example, the Holy See
instructed Italian Catholics to boycott national elections for several
decades after the creation of the state of Italy. In some
countries, there are threats of violence against those who vote, such
as during the 2005 Iraq elections, an example of voter suppression.
However, some political scientists question the view that high turnout
is an implicit endorsement of the system. Mark N. Franklin contends
European Union elections
European Union elections opponents of the federation, and of
its legitimacy, are just as likely to vote as proponents.
Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or
indifference, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate
reflection of the will of the people. On the other hand, if low
turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners
or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long
as the right to vote exists. Still, low turnouts can lead to unequal
representation among various parts of the population. In developed
countries, non-voters tend to be concentrated in particular
demographic and socioeconomic groups, especially the young and the
poor. However, in India, which boasts an electorate of more than 814
million people, the opposite is true. The poor, who comprise the
majority of the demographic, are more likely to vote than the rich and
the middle classes, and turnout is higher in rural
areas than urban areas. In low-turnout countries, these
groups[clarification needed] are often significantly under-represented
in elections. This has the potential to skew policy.
For instance, a high voter turnout among the elderly coupled with a
low turnout among the young may lead to more money for retirees'
health care, and less for youth employment schemes. Some nations thus
have rules that render an election invalid if too few people vote,
such as Serbia, where three successive presidential elections were
rendered invalid in 2003.
Determinants and demographics of turnout
Socio-Economic Status and
Voting Turnout in USA and India
Lowest 20%: 36.4%
Highest 20%: 63.1
No high school 38%
Some high school 43
Up to middle 83
High school graduate 57
Some college 66
College grad 79
Hindu (OBC) 58
In each country, some parts of society are more likely to vote than
others. In high-turnout countries, these differences tend to be
limited. As turnout approaches 90%, it becomes difficult to find
significant differences between voters and nonvoters, but in low
turnout nations the differences between voters and non-voters can be
Turnout differences appear to persist over time; in fact, the
strongest predictor of individual turnout is whether or not one voted
in the previous election. As a result, many scholars think of
turnout as habitual behavior that can be learned or unlearned,
especially among young adults.
One study found that improving children's social skills increases
their turnout as adults.
Socioeconomic factors significantly affect whether or not individuals
develop the habit of voting. The most important socioeconomic factor
affecting voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is,
the more likely he or she is to vote, even controlling for other
factors that are closely associated with education level, such as
income and class.
Income has some effect independently: wealthier
people are more likely to vote, regardless of their educational
background. There is some debate over the effects of ethnicity, race,
and gender. In the past, these factors unquestionably influenced
turnout in many nations, but nowadays the consensus among political
scientists is that these factors have little effect in Western
democracies when education and income differences are taken into
account. However, since different ethnic groups typically have
different levels of education and income, there are important
differences in turnout between such groups in many societies. Other
demographic factors have an important influence: young people are far
less likely to vote than the elderly. Occupation has
little effect on turnout, with the notable exception of higher voting
rates among government employees in many countries.
There can also be regional differences in voter turnout. One issue
that arises in continent-spanning nations, such as Australia, Canada,
United States and Russia, is that of time zones.
Canada banned the
broadcasting of election results in any region where the polls have
not yet closed; this ban was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. In
several recent Australian national elections, the citizens of Western
Australia knew which party would form the new government up to an hour
before the polling booths in their State closed.
Differences between elections
Within countries there can be important differences in turnout between
individual elections . Elections where control of the national
executive is not at stake generally have much lower turnouts—often
half that for general elections. Municipal and
provincial elections, and by-elections to fill casual vacancies,
typically have lower turnouts, as do elections for the parliament of
the supranational European Union, which is separate from the executive
branch of the EU's government. In the United States, midterm
congressional elections attract far lower turnouts than Congressional
elections held concurrently with Presidential ones. Runoff
elections also tend to attract lower turnouts.
Competitiveness of races
In theory, one of the factors that is most likely to increase turnout
is a close race. With an intensely polarized electorate and all polls
showing a close finish between President
George W. Bush
George W. Bush and Democratic
challenger John F. Kerry, the turnout in the 2004 U.S. presidential
election was close to 60%, resulting in a record number of popular
votes for both candidates; despite losing the election, Kerry even
surpassed Ronald Reagan's 1984 record in terms of the number of
popular votes received. However, this race also demonstrates the
influence that contentious social issues can have on voter turnout;
for example, the voter turnout rate in 1860 wherein anti-slavery
candidate Abraham Lincoln won the election was the second-highest on
record (81.2 percent, second only to 1876, with 81.8 percent).
Nonetheless, there is evidence to support the argument that
predictable election results—where one vote is not seen to be able
to make a difference—have resulted in lower turnouts, such as Bill
Clinton's 1996 re-election (which featured the lowest voter turnout in
United States since 1924), the
United Kingdom general election of
2001, and the 2005 Spanish referendum on the European Constitution;
all of these elections produced decisive results on a low turnout.
A 2017 NBER paper found that an awareness by the electorate that an
election would be close increased turnout: "Closer elections are
associated with greater turnout only when polls exist. Examining
within-election variation in newspaper reporting on polls across
cantons, we find that close polls increase turnout significantly more
where newspapers report on them most."
One 2017 study in the Journal of Politics found that, in the United
States, incarceration had no significant impact on turnout in
elections: ex-felons did not become less likely to vote after their
time in prison. Also in the United States, incarceration,
probation, and a felony record deny 5-6 million Americans of the right
to vote, with reforms gradually leading more states to allow people
with felony criminal records to vote, while almost none allow
incarcerated people to vote.
Access to polling places
A 2017 study found that the opening and closing hours of polling
places determines the age demographics of turnout: turnout among
younger voters is higher the longer polling places are open and
turnout among older voters decreases the later polling places
Costs of participation
A 2017 study in Electoral Studies found that Swiss cantons that
reduced the costs of postal voting for voters by prepaying the postage
on return envelopes (which otherwise cost 85 Swiss Franc cents) were
"associated with a statistically significant 1.8 percentage point
increase in voter turnout". A 2016 study in the American Journal
of Political Science found that preregistration - allowing young
citizens to register before being eligible to vote - increased turnout
by 2 to 8 percentage points.
A 2017 experimental study found that by sending registered voters
between the ages of 18 and 30 a voter guide containing salient
information about candidates in an upcoming election (a list of
candidate endorsements and the candidates' policy positions on five
issues in the campaign) increased turnout by 0.9 points.
Research results are mixed as to whether bad weather affects turnout.
There is research that shows that bad weather can reduce
turnout. A 2016 study, however, found no
evidence that weather disruptions reduce turnout. A 2011 study
found "that while rain decreases turnout on average, it does not do so
in competitive elections." The season and the day of the week
(although many nations hold all their elections on the same weekday)
can also affect turnout. Weekend and summer elections find more of the
population on holiday or uninterested in politics, and have lower
turnouts. When nations set fixed election dates, these are usually
midweek during the spring or autumn to maximize turnout. Variations in
turnout between elections tend to be insignificant. It is extremely
rare for factors such as competitiveness, weather, and time of year to
cause an increase or decrease in turnout of more than five percentage
points, far smaller than the differences between groups within
society, and far smaller than turnout differentials between
nations. A 2017 study in the journal American Politics Research
found that rainfall increased Republican vote shares, because it
decreased turnout more among Democratic voters than Republican
Limited research suggests that genetic factors may also be important.
Some scholars recently argued that the decision to vote in the United
States has very strong heritability, using twin studies of validated
turnout in Los Angeles and self-reported turnout in the National
Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to establish that. They
suggest that genetics could help to explain why parental turnout is
such a strong predictor of voting in young people, and also why voting
appears to be habitual. Further, they suggest, if there is an
innate predisposition to vote or abstain, this would explain why past
voting behavior is such a good predictor of future voter reaction.
In addition to the twin study method, scholars have used gene
association studies to analyze voter turnout. Two genes that influence
social behavior have been directly associated with voter turnout,
specifically those regulating the serotonin system in the brain via
the production of monoamine oxidase and 5HTT. However, this study
was reanalyzed by separate researchers who concluded these "two genes
do not predict voter turnout", pointing to several significant errors,
as well as "a number of difficulties, both methodological and genetic"
in studies in this field. Once these errors were corrected, there was
no longer any statistically significant association between common
variants of these two genes and voter turnout.
Parents to newly enfranchised voters
A 2018 study in the
American Political Science Review found that the
parents to newly enfranchised voters "become 2.8 percentage points
more likely to vote."
A 2018 study in The Journal of Politics found that Section 5 of the
Voting Rights Act "increased black voter registration by 14–19
percentage points, white registration by 10–13 percentage points,
and overall voter turnout by 10–19 percentage points. Additional
results for Democratic vote share suggest that some of this overall
increase in turnout may have come from reactionary whites."
Turnout in national lower house elections, 1960–1995
Y (for voters below 75)
Y (not enforced)
Y (for voters between 18 and 70 years)
Compulsory voting until 1998
**Excludes pre-1968 elections, when voting was compulsory.
***Turnout rates during the period ranged from 55%
for general election years, to 40% for off-year elections
(those for which the presidency was not on the ballot).
****In Italy, voting used to be compulsory but only with "innocuous
sanctions" (i.e., not enforced) up to 1992.
Statistics from Mark N. Franklin's "Electoral Participation", found in
Voting Behavior (2001). Includes only "free"
Voting is no longer compulsory in Chile, but the turnout figures
reflect a time when not voting was legally punished.
Voter turnout varies considerably between nations. It tends to be
lower in the United States, Asia and Latin America than in most of
Europe, Canada and Oceania. Western Europe averages a
77% turnout, and South and Central America around 54% since 1945.
The differences between nations tend to be greater than those between
classes, ethnic groups, or regions within nations. Confusingly, some
of the factors that cause internal differences do not seem to apply on
a global level. For instance, nations with better-educated populaces
do not have higher turnouts. There are two main commonly cited causes
of these international differences: culture and institutions. However,
there is much debate over the relative impact of the various factors.
Wealth and literacy have some effect on turnout, but are not reliable
measures. Countries such as
Ethiopia have long had high
turnouts, but so have the wealthy states of Europe. The United Nations
Human Development Index
Human Development Index shows some correlation between higher
standards of living and higher turnout. The age of a democracy is also
an important factor. Elections require considerable involvement by the
population, and it takes some time to develop the cultural habit of
voting, and the associated understanding of and confidence in the
electoral process. This factor may explain the lower turnouts in the
newer democracies of Eastern Europe and Latin America. Much of the
impetus to vote comes from a sense of civic duty, which takes time and
certain social conditions that can take decades to develop:
trust in government;
degree of partisanship among the population;
interest in politics, and
belief in the efficacy of voting.
Demographics also have an effect. Older people tend to vote more than
youths, so societies where the average age is somewhat higher, such as
Europe; have higher turnouts than somewhat younger countries such as
the United States. Populations that are more mobile and those that
have lower marriage rates tend to have lower turnout. In countries
that are highly multicultural and multilingual, it can be difficult
for national election campaigns to engage all sectors of the
The nature of elections also varies between nations. In the United
States, negative campaigning and character attacks are more common
than elsewhere, potentially suppressing turnouts. The focus placed on
get out the vote efforts and mass-marketing can have important effects
on turnout. Partisanship is an important impetus to turnout, with the
highly partisan more likely to vote. Turnout tends to be higher in
nations where political allegiance is closely linked to class, ethnic,
linguistic, or religious loyalties. Countries where multiparty
systems have developed also tend to have higher turnouts. Nations with
a party specifically geared towards the working class will tend to
have higher turnouts among that class than in countries where voters
have only big tent parties, which try to appeal to all the voters, to
choose from. A four-wave panel study conducted during the 2010
Swedish national election campaign, show (1) clear differences in
media use between age groups and (2) that both political social media
use and attention to political news in traditional media increase
political engagement over time.
Institutional factors have a significant impact on voter turnout.
Rules and laws are also generally easier to change than attitudes, so
much of the work done on how to improve voter turnout looks at these
factors. Making voting compulsory has a direct and dramatic effect on
turnout. Simply making it easier for candidates to stand through
easier nomination rules is believed to increase voting. Conversely,
adding barriers, such as a separate registration process, can suppress
turnout. The salience of an election, the effect that a vote will have
on policy, and its proportionality, how closely the result reflects
the will of the people, are two structural factors that also likely
have important effects on turnout.
The modalities of how electoral registration is conducted can also
affect turnout. For example, until "rolling registration" was
introduced in the United Kingdom, there was no possibility of the
electoral register being updated during its currency, or even amending
genuine mistakes after a certain cut off date. The register was
compiled in October, and would come into force the next February, and
would remain valid until the next January. The electoral register
would become progressively more out of date during its period of
validity, as electors moved or died (also people studying or working
away from home often had difficulty voting). This meant that elections
taking place later in the year tended to have lower turnouts than
those earlier in the year. The introduction of rolling registration
where the register is updated monthly has reduced but not entirely
eliminated this issue since the process of amending the register is
not automatic, and some individuals do not join the electoral register
until the annual October compilation process.
Another country with a highly efficient registration process is
France. At the age of eighteen, all youth are automatically
registered. Only new residents and citizens who have moved are
responsible for bearing the costs and inconvenience of updating their
registration. Similarly, in Nordic countries, all citizens and
residents are included in the official population register, which is
simultaneously a tax list, voter registration, and membership in the
universal health system. Residents are required by law to report any
change of address to register within a short time after moving. This
is also the system in
Germany (but without the membership in the
The elimination of registration as a separate bureaucratic step can
result in higher voter turnout. This is reflected in statistics from
United States Bureau of Census, 1982–1983. States that have same
day registration, or no registration requirements, have a higher voter
turnout than the national average. At the time of that report, the
four states that allowed election day registration were Minnesota,
Wisconsin, Maine, and Oregon. Since then, Idaho and Maine have changed
to allow same day registration. North Dakota is the only state that
requires no registration.
One of the strongest factors affecting voter turnout is whether voting
is compulsory. In Australia, voter registration and attendance at a
polling booth have been mandatory since the 1920s, with the most
recent federal election in 2013 having turnout figures of 93.23% for
the House of Representatives and 93.88% for the Senate.
Several other countries have similar laws, generally with somewhat
reduced levels of enforcement. If a Bolivian voter fails to
participate in an election, the citizen may be denied withdrawal of
their salary from the bank for three months.
Mexico and Brazil, existing sanctions for non-voting are minimal or
are rarely enforced. When enforced, compulsion has a dramatic effect
Venezuela and the
Netherlands compulsory voting has been rescinded,
resulting in substantial decreases in turnout.
Greece voting is compulsory, however there are practically no
sanctions for those who do not vote.
Luxembourg voting is compulsory, too, but not strongly
Luxembourg only voters below the age of 75 and those who
are not physically handicapped or chronically ill have the legal
obligation to vote.
Sanctions for non-voting behaviour were foreseen sometimes even in
absence of a formal requirement to vote. In
Italy the Constitution
describes voting as a duty (art. 48), though electoral participation
is not obligatory. From 1946 to 1992, thus, the Italian electoral law
included light sanctions for non-voters (lists of non-voters were
posted at polling stations). Turnout rates have not declined
substantially since 1992 in Italy, though, pointing to other factors
than compulsory voting to explain high electoral participation.
Mark N. Franklin argues that salience, the perceived effect that an
individual vote will have on how the country is run, has a significant
effect on turnout. He presents
Switzerland as an example of a nation
with low salience. The nation's administration is highly
decentralized, so that the federal government has limited powers. The
government invariably consists of a coalition of parties, and the
power wielded by a party is far more closely linked to its position
relative to the coalition than to the number of votes it received.
Important decisions are placed before the population in a referendum.
Individual votes for the federal legislature are thus unlikely to have
a significant effect on the nation, which probably explains the low
average turnouts in that country. By contrast Malta, with one of the
world's highest voter turnouts, has a single legislature that holds a
near monopoly on political power.
Malta has a two-party system in
which a small swing in votes can completely alter the executive.
On the other hand, countries with a two party system can experience
low turnout if large numbers of potential voters perceive little real
difference between the main parties. Voters' perceptions of fairness
also have an important effect on salience. If voters feel that the
result of an election is more likely to be determined by fraud and
corruption than by the will of the people, fewer people will vote.
Another institutional factor that may have an important effect is
proportionality, i.e., how closely the legislature reflects the views
of the populace. Under a pure proportional representation system the
composition of the legislature is fully proportional to the votes of
the populace and a voter can be sure that he will be represented in
parliament, even if only from the opposition benches. (However many
nations that utilise a form of proportional representation in
elections depart from pure proportionality by stipulating that smaller
parties are not supported by a certain threshold percentage of votes
cast will be excluded from parliament.) By contrast, a voting system
based on single seat constituencies (such as the plurality system used
in North American, the UK and India) will tend to result in many
non-competitive electoral districts, in which the outcome is seen by
voters as a foregone conclusion.
Proportional systems tend to produce multiparty coalition governments.
This may reduce salience, if voters perceive that they have little
influence over which parties are included in the coalition. For
instance, after the 2005 German election, the creation of the
executive not only expressed the will of the voters of the majority
party but also was the result of political deal-making. Although there
is no guarantee, this is lessened as the parties usually state with
whom they will favour a coalition after the elections.[citation
Political scientists are divided on whether proportional
representation increases voter turnout, though in countries with
proportional representation voter turnout is higher. There
are other systems that attempt to preserve both salience and
proportionality, for example, the Mixed member proportional
representation system in
New Zealand (in operation since 1996),
Germany, and several other countries. However, these tend to be
complex electoral systems, and in some cases complexity appears to
suppress voter turnout. The dual system in Germany, though, seems
to have had no negative impact on voter turnout.
Ease of voting
Ease of voting is a factor in rates of turnout. In the United States
and most Latin American nations, voters must go through separate voter
registration procedures before they are allowed to vote. This two-step
process quite clearly decreases turnout. U.S. states with no, or
easier, registration requirements have larger turnouts. Other
methods of improving turnout include making voting easier through more
available absentee polling and improved access to polls, such as
increasing the number of possible voting locations, lowering the
average time voters have to spend waiting in line, or requiring
companies to give workers some time off on voting day.[which?] In some
areas, generally those where some polling centres are relatively
inaccessible, such as India, elections often take several days. Some
countries have considered
Internet voting as a possible solution. In
other countries, like France, voting is held on the weekend, when most
voters are away from work. Therefore, the need for time off from work
as a factor in voter turnout is greatly reduced.
Many countries have looked into
Internet voting as a possible solution
for low voter turnout. Some countries like
Internet voting. However, it has only been used sparingly by a few
states in the US. This is due largely to security concerns. For
example, the US Department of Defense looked into making Internet
voting secure, but cancelled the effort. The idea would be that
voter turnout would increase because people could cast their vote from
the comfort of their own homes, although the few experiments with
Internet voting have produced mixed results.
Main article: Voter fatigue
Voter fatigue can lower turnout. If there are many elections in close
succession, voter turnout will decrease as the public tires of
participating. In low-turnout Switzerland, the average voter is
invited to go to the polls an average of seven times a year; the
United States has frequent elections, with two votes per year on
average, if one includes all levels of government as well as
primaries. Holding multiple elections at the same time can
increase turnout; however, presenting voters with massive multipage
ballots, as occurs in some parts of the United States, can reduce
Differing methods of measuring voter turnout can contribute to
reported differences between nations. There are difficulties in
measuring both the numerator, the number of voters who cast votes, and
the denominator, the number of voters eligible to vote.
For the numerator, it is often assumed that the number of voters who
went to the polls should equal the number of ballots cast, which in
turn should equal the number of votes counted, but this is not the
case. Not all voters who arrive at the polls necessarily cast ballots.
Some may be turned away because they are ineligible, some may be
turned away improperly, and some who sign the voting register may not
actually cast ballots. Furthermore, voters who do cast ballots may
abstain, deliberately voting for nobody, or they may spoil their
votes, either accidentally or as an act of protest.
In the United Kingdom, the Electoral Commission distinguishes between
"valid vote turnout", which excludes spoilt ballots, and "ballot box
turnout", which does not.
In the United States, it has been common to report turnout as the sum
of votes for the top race on the ballot, because not all jurisdictions
report the actual number of people who went to the polls nor the
number of undervotes or overvotes. Overvote rates of around 0.3
percent are typical of well-run elections, but in Gadsden County
Florida, the overvote rate was 11 percent in November 2000.
For the denominator, it is often assumed that the number of eligible
voters was well defined, but again, this is not the case. In the
United States, for example, there is no accurate registry of exactly
who is eligible to vote, since only about 70–75% of people choose to
register themselves. Thus, turnout has to be calculated based on
population estimates. Some political scientists have argued that these
measures do not properly account for the large number of illegal
aliens, disenfranchised felons and persons who are considered
'mentally incompetent' in the United States, and that American voter
turnout is higher than is normally reported. Professor Michael P.
McDonald constructed an estimation of the turnout against the 'voting
eligible population' (VEP), instead of the 'voting age population'
(VAP). For the American presidential elections of 2004, turnout could
then be expressed as 60.32% of VEP, rather than 55.27% of VAP.[dead
In New Zealand, registration is supposed to be universal. This does
not eliminate uncertainty in the eligible population because this
system has been shown to be unreliable, with a large number of
eligible but unregistered citizens, creating inflated turnout
A second problem with turnout measurements lies in the way turnout is
computed. One can count the number of voters, or one can count the
number of ballots, and in a vote-for-one race, one can sum the number
of votes for each candidate. These are not necessarily identical
because not all voters who sign in at the polls necessarily cast
ballots, although they ought to, and because voters may cast spoiled
Trends of decreasing turnout since the 1980s
Change in voter turnout over time for five selected countries
Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in
the established democracies. This trend has been significant in the
United States, Western Europe,
Japan and Latin America. It has been a
matter of concern and controversy among political scientists for
several decades. During this same period, other forms of political
participation have also declined, such as voluntary participation in
political parties and the attendance of observers at town meetings.
The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic
participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional,
fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher
associations. At the same time, some forms of participation have
increased. People have become far more likely to participate in
boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns.
Before the late 20th century, suffrage — the right to vote — was
so limited in most nations that turnout figures have little relevance
to today. One exception was the United States, which had near
universal white male suffrage by 1840. The U.S. saw a steady rise in
voter turnout during the century, reaching its peak in the years after
the Civil War. Turnout declined from the 1890s until the 1930s, then
increased again until 1960 before beginning its current long
decline. In Europe, voter turnouts steadily increased from the
introduction of universal suffrage before peaking in the mid-to-late
1960s, with modest declines since then. These declines have been
smaller than those in the United States, and in some European
countries turnouts have remained stable and even slightly increased.
Globally, voter turnout has decreased by about five percentage points
over the last four decades.
Reasons for decline
See also: Get out the vote
Methods of raising turnout.
Many causes have been proposed for this decline; a combination of
factors is most likely. When asked why they do not vote, many people
report that they have too little free time. However, over the last
several decades, studies have consistently shown that the amount of
leisure time has not decreased. According to a study by the Heritage
Foundation, Americans report on average an additional 7.9 hours of
leisure time per week since 1965. Furthermore, according to a
study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, increases in wages
and employment actually decrease voter turnout in gubernatorial
elections and do not affect national races. Potential voters'
perception that they are busier is common and might be just as
important as a real decrease in leisure time. Geographic mobility has
increased over the last few decades. There are often barriers to
voting in a district where one is a recent arrival, and a new arrival
is likely to know little about the local candidate and local issues.
Francis Fukuyama has blamed the welfare state, arguing that the
decrease in turnout has come shortly after the government became far
more involved in people's lives. He argues in Trust: The Social
Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity that the social capital
essential to high voter turnouts is easily dissipated by government
actions. However, on an international level those states with the most
extensive social programs tend to be the ones with the highest
turnouts. Richard Sclove argues in
technological developments in society such as "automobilization,"
suburban living, and "an explosive proliferation of home entertainment
devices" have contributed to a loss of community, which in turn has
weakened participation in civic life.[not specific enough to
Trust in government and in politicians has decreased in many nations.
However, the first signs of decreasing voter turnout occurred in the
early 1960s, which was before the major upheavals of the late 1960s
Robert D. Putnam
Robert D. Putnam argues that the collapse in civil
engagement is due to the introduction of television. In the 1950s and
1960s, television quickly became the main leisure activity in
developed nations. It replaced earlier more social entertainments such
as bridge clubs, church groups, and bowling leagues. Putnam argues
that as people retreated within their homes and general social
participation declined so too did voting.
Rosenstone and Hansen contend that the decline in turnout in the
United States is the product of a change in campaigning strategies as
a result of the so-called new media. Before the introduction of
television, almost all of a party's resources would be directed
towards intensive local campaigning and get out the vote initiatives.
In the modern era, these resources have been redirected to expensive
media campaigns in which the potential voter is a passive
participant. During the same period, negative campaigning has
become ubiquitous in the
United States and elsewhere and has been
shown to impact voter turnout. Attack ads and smear campaigns give
voters a negative impression of the entire political process. The
evidence for this is mixed: elections involving highly unpopular
incumbents generally have high turnout; some studies have found that
mudslinging and character attacks reduce turnout, but that substantive
attacks on a party's record can increase it.
Part of the reason for voter decline in the recent 2016 election is
likely because of restrictive voting laws around the country. Brennan
Center for Justice reported that in 2016 fourteen states passed
restrictive voting laws. Examples of these laws are photo ID
mandates, narrow times for early voter, and limitations on voter
registration. Barbour and Wright also believe that one of the causes
is restrictive voting laws but they call this system of laws
regulating the electorate. The Constitution gives states the power
to make decisions regarding restrictive voting laws. In 2008 the
Supreme Court made a crucial decision regarding Indiana’s voter ID
law in saying that it does not violate the constitution. Since then
almost half of the states have passed restrictive voting laws. These
laws contribute to Barbour and Wrights idea of the rational nonvoter.
This is someone who does not vote because the benefits of them not
voting outweighs the cost to vote. These laws add to the
“cost” of voting, or reason that make it more difficult and to
vote. In the
United States programs such as MTV's "Rock the Vote" and
the "Vote or Die" initiatives have been introduced to increase
turnouts of those between the ages of 18 and 25. A number of
governments and electoral commissions have also launched efforts to
boost turnout. For instance Elections
Canada has launched mass media
campaigns to encourage voting prior to elections, as have bodies in
Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
Google extensively studied the causes behind low voter turnout in the
United States, and argues that one of the key reasons behind lack of
voter participation is the so-called "interested bystander".
According to Google's study, 48.9% of adult Americans can be
classified as "interested bystanders", as they are politically
informed but are reticent to involve themselves in the civic and
political sphere. This category is not limited to any socioeconomic or
demographic groups. Google theorizes that individuals in this category
suffer from Voter apathy, as they are interested in political life but
believe that their individual effect would be negligible. These
individuals often participate politically on the local level, but shy
away from national elections.
It has been argued that democratic consolidation (the stabilization of
new democracies) contributes to the decline in voter turnout. A 2017
study challenges this however.
Much of the above analysis is predicated on voter turnout as measured
as a percentage of the voting-age population. In a 2001 article in the
American Political Science Review, Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin
argued, that at least in the United States, voter turnout since 1972
has not actually declined when calculated for those eligible to vote,
what they term the voting-eligible population. In 1972,
noncitizens and ineligible felons (depending on state law) constituted
about 2% of the voting-age population. By 2004, ineligible voters
constituted nearly 10%. Ineligible voters are not evenly distributed
across the country – 20% of California's voting-age population is
ineligible to vote – which confounds comparisons of states.
Furthermore, they argue that an examination of the Census Bureau's
Current Population Survey shows that turnout is low but not declining
among the youth, when the high youth turnout of 1972 (the first year
18- to 20-year-olds were eligible to vote in most states) is removed
from the trendline.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Voter turnout.
In alphabetical order by title and work
Charles Q. Choi (November 2007). "The Genetics of Politics".
Scientific American (Print). Scientific American, Inc. pp. 18,
21. ...the desire to vote or abstain from politics might largely be
hardwired into our biology access-date= requires url= (help)
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Returns 1787–1825". Digital Collections and Archives. Tufts
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returns from the earliest years of American democracy.
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2007-01-19. Archived from the original on 2007-12-08. Retrieved
2008-06-24. The Power Commission was established to discover what is
happening to our democracy. It sought to establish why people were
disengaging from formal democratic politics in Britain and how these
trends could be reversed.
"Voter Turnout". ElectionGuide. International Foundation for Electoral
Systems. Archived from the original on 2008-06-07. Retrieved
2008-06-24. ...ElectionGuide is the most comprehensive and timely
source of verified election information and results available
"Voter Turnout". FairVote.
Democracy Research Center.
Retrieved 2008-06-24. Voter Turnout is a fundamental quality of fair
elections and is generally considered to be a necessary factor for a
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Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 2008-06-16. Archived from the
original on 2008-12-10. Retrieved 2008-06-23. The International IDEA
Voter Turnout Website contains the most comprehensive global
collection of political participation statistics available.
Michael McDonald (2008-04-01). "Voter Turnout". United States
Elections Project. Archived from the original on 2008-05-14. Retrieved
2008-06-24. Statistics on voter turnout presented here show that the
much-lamented decline in voter participation is an artifact of the way
in which it is measured.
Rhonda Parkinson (2007-03-01). "Voter Turnout in Canada". Maple Leaf
Web. Retrieved 2008-06-23. Since the 1980s, voter turnout in federal
elections has fal