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Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s. In general, low turnout may be due to disenchantment, indifference, or contentment. Low turnout is often considered to be undesirable, and there is much debate over the factors that affect turnout and how to increase it. In spite of significant study into the issue, scholars are divided on reasons for the decline. Its cause has been attributed to a wide array of economic, demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors. There have been many efforts to increase turnout and encourage voting.
Different countries have very different average voter turnouts. For example, in the United States, scarcely half the eligible population votes, while in Australia, which has compulsory voting, and Malta, participation reaches 95%. These differences are believed to be caused by a mix of cultural and institutional factors.
Reasons for voting
In any large election the chance of any one vote influencing the outcome is very low. This causes a difficulty for rational choice theory, in that it seems that a rational individual should not vote. This is in part a "free rider problem", because in theory an individual voter can rely on the rest of the population to make a rational decision, without having to go to the effort of becoming informed, making a decision, and going out to vote. 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 zero.
The basic formula for determining whether someone will vote is PB + D > C. Here, P is the probability that an individual's vote will affect the outcome of an election, and B is the perceived benefit of that person's favoured political party or candidate being 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.
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.
The significance of voter turnout
It is often considered that high voter turnouts are desirable, though among political scientists and economists specialising 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 referendum 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 that in 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. In India, however, 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. In low-turnout countries, these groups are often significantly under-represented in elections. This has the potential to skew policy. For instance, a high voter turnout among seniors coupled with a low turnout among the young may lead to more money for seniors' 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 and Montenegro, where three successive presidential elections were rendered invalid in 2003.
In parliamentary systems
In parliamentary systems with proportional representation, low voter turnout often helps smaller parties because it decreases the minimum threshold required to get seats. For example, in Israel’s 2006 elections turnout fell to 63.2% from 67.8% in 2003, forcing Kadima and Labour to search for a larger coalition. 
In each nation, some parts of society are more likely to vote than others. In high-turnout nations, these differences tend to be limited: as turnout approaches 90% it becomes difficult to find differences of much significance between voters and nonvoters, but in low turnout nations the differences between voters and non-voters can be quite marked.
In developing countries, the poor (and uneducated), who dominate the demographics, are more likely to vote than the middle class, who are disenfranchised in majoritarian voting system. Also, in some developing countries, demographics are divided along religious or ethnic or tribal lines. It is common for minority groups that find it impossible to push their political agenda through majoritarian system to boycott the system, which occasionally leads to violence and in some instances, to civil war. In developed countries, the most important factor in voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to vote, even when controlled for other factors such as income and class that are closely associated with education level. 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. 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; and single people are less likely to vote than those who are married. 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 Canada, the United States and Russia, is that of time zones. Canada attempted to ban the broadcasting of election results in any region where the polls have not yet closed; however, this ban was struck down by the Canadian Supreme Court.
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.
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 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 the 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.
Bad weather can reduce turnouts, as can the season and the day of the week (although many nations hold all their elections on the same weekday). 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 between turnout between elections tends 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.
|Country||# of elections||Turnout|
|*Countries with compulsory voting|
|**Compulsory voting until 1988|
|***Does not include pre-1968 elections,
when compulsory voting was in place
|****Includes only Congressional elections
held in same year as presidential ones.
|Numbers from Mark N. Franklin's "Electoral
Participation", found in Controversies in Voting
Behavior (2001). Includes only "free" elections
Voter turnout varies considerably between countries. It tends to be lower in the United States, Canada, Asia and Latin America than most of Europe and Oceania. Western Europe averages a 77% turnout, the United States closer to 50%, and Latin America 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. Political scientists have identified two causes of these international differences—culture and institutions—although this is controversial.
Wealth and literacy have some effect on turnout, but are not reliable measures. Countries such as Angola and Ethiopia have long had high turnouts, but so have the wealthy states of Europe. The United Nations 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 to develop. G. Bingham Powell lists four major attitudes that have a strongly positive effect on voter turnout, attitudes 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 Canada and 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 population.
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 only have big tent parties, which try to appeal to all the voters, to choose from.
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 voting easier through greater ballot access also increases 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 modalaties 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.
One of the strongest factors affecting turnout is whether voting is compulsory. In Australia, voter registration and attendance at a polling booth have been mandatory since the 1920s. These rules are strictly enforced, and the country has one of the world's highest voter turnouts. Several other countries have similar laws, generally with somewhat reduced levels of enforcement. Bolivian citizens who don't vote may be denied 3 months salary. In Mexico and Brazil, sanctions for non-voting are minimal or rarely enforced. When enforced, compulsion has a dramatic effect on turnout. In Venezuela and the Netherlands compulsory voting has been rescinded, resulting in substantial decreases in turnout.
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 (rightly or wrongly) 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. A pure proportional representation system is fully proportional to the votes of the populace. This makes it far more likely that any given vote will make a difference. By contrast, a plurality system will almost always see districts in which one party is so dominant that there is little reason to vote. However, proportional systems almost invariably produce multiparty systems and coalition governments. This reduces salience, since the voters have little influence over which parties are included in the coalition. For instance, after the 2005 German election, the creation of the executive was the result of political deal-making rather than the direct will of the people. Political scientists are thus divided on whether proportional representation systems increase voter turnout (which appears to depend on a number of contextual factors). There are other systems that attempt to preserve both salience and proportionality, for example, the dual system that has operated in New Zealand since 1996. However, these tend to be complex electoral systems, and complexity appears to suppress 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. In some areas, generally those where some polling centres are relatively inaccessible, such as India and Finland, elections often take several days. Some countries have considered internet voting as a possible solution.
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 turnouts.
Differing methods of counting voter turnout can contribute to reported differences between nations. In the United States, there is no accurate registry of exactly who is eligible to vote, since only some 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 and disenfranchised felons in the United States, and that American voter turnout is higher than is normally reported. Conversely, in New Zealand, registration is supposed to be universal, but historically this system has been unreliable, with a large number of eligible but unregistered citizens, creating inflated turnout figures.
Trends of decreasing turnout
Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies. This trend has been most strongly felt in the United States, and has been significant in 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 19th 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 states turnout has remained stable and even slightly increased. Globally, voter turnout has decreased by about five percentage points over the last four decades.
Reasons for decline
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. The perception that one is 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. The average age of first marriage has increased, and divorce rates have skyrocketed. Single people are generally less likely to vote. 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. It has also been argued that the United States Electoral College discourages turnout because voters in states which usually fall to one of the two major parties see their votes as insignificant. This can lead to a tragedy of the commons, in which enough people do not vote because of their belief that their vote is insignificant.
In the United States, the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal may have caused voters to lose faith in their political leaders during the 1960s and 1970s. Many other nations saw a similar period of protest and alienation during this era, in part linked to the demographic effect of the baby boom. 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 and 1970s. Robert D. Putnam argues that the collapse in civil engagement is due to the introduction of television; it is true that the long decline in voter turnout started during the rapid introduction of television in the 1950s and 1960s. As television became the main form of leisure, traditional group-based recreations such as bowling leagues and bridge clubs declined in importance. Rosenstone and Hansen contend that the decline in turnout 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. It has been argued that 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.
The decline in voter turnout is almost wholly concentrated among young people. Those who began voting prior to 1960 maintain the same high turnout rates of that era. For each subsequent generation, starting with the one that came of age in the 1960s, turnout has steadily declined. Recent programs to increase the rates of voting among young people—such as MTV's "Rock the Vote" and the "Vote or Die" initiatives in the United States—may have marginally increased turnouts of those between the ages of 18 and 25 to vote. 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.
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 18-20 year olds were eligible to vote in most states) is removed from the trendline.
- ^ Satoshi Kanazawa. "A Possible Solution to the Paradox of Voter Turnout." The Journal of Politics. p. 974
- ^ Kanazawa p. 975
- ^ The basic idea behind this formula was developed by Anthony Downs in 1957, the formula itself was developed by Riker and Ordershook in 1968.
- ^ Riker and Ordershook, 1968
- ^ See Mark N. Franklin. "Electoral Engineering and Cross National Turnout Differences." British Journal of Political Science, who attempts to challenge some of this consensus
- ^ CNN - Saddam gets perfect poll result
- ^ Katz p. 242
- ^ Franklin. "Electoral Engineering"
- ^ Voters in Israel Support Parties Vowing Pullout. New York Times. March 29, 2006. p. A8.
- ^ Franklin. "Electoral Engineering"
- ^ Sigelman, L., Roeder, P. W., Jewell, M. E., & Baer, M. A. (1985). Voting and nonvoting: A multi-election perspective. American Journal of Political Science, 29(4), 749-765.
- ^ Sigelman, L., Roeder, P. W., Jewell, M. E., & Baer, M. A. (1985). Voting and nonvoting: A multi-election perspective. American Journal of Political Science, 29(4), 749-765.
- ^ Lijphart. p. 12
- ^ Kanazawa p. 975
- ^ G. Bingham Powell "Voter Turnout in Thirty Democracies." in Electoral Participation.
- ^ IDEA - Regional differences
- ^ G. Bingham Powell. "American Voter Turnout in Comparative Perspective." The American Political Science Review. 1986 p. 19.
- ^ Powell "Thirty Democracies." p. 14
- ^ Powell. p. 13
- ^ Mark N. Franklin. "Electoral Participation." in Controversies in Voting Behavior p. 87
- ^ Richard S. Katz. Democracy and Elections. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- ^ Robert W. Jackman and Ross A. Miller. "Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies During the 1980s." in Elections and Voting Behaviour: New Challenges, New Perspectives. p. 308
- ^ Katz p. 240
- ^ Powell "Thirty Democracies." p. 12
- ^ Richard G. Niemi and Herbert F. Weisberg. Controversies in Voting Behavior p. 31
- ^ Franklin "Electoral Participation." p. 98
- ^ Arend Lijphart. "Unequal Participation: Democracy's Unresolved Dilemma." American Political Science Review.
- ^ Katz p. 239
- ^ Niemi and Weisberg "Introduction." Controversies in Voting Vehavior. p. 25
- ^ Katz p. 334
- ^ Niemi and Weisberg p. 31
- ^ Robert D. Putnam "Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America." in Controversies in Voting Behavior p. 40
- ^ Niemi and Weisberg. p. 30
- ^ Walter Dean Burnham. "The Appearance and Disappearance of the American Voter."
- ^ Lijphart p. 6
- ^ Putnam p. 61
- ^ Steven J. Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen. "Solving the Puzzle of Participation in Electoral Politics." p. 73
- ^ Niemi and Weisberg p. 30.
- ^ Eisner, Jane. "Rock the Vote, now 15, eager to help drive policy." Philadelphia Inquirer 12 June 2005. 12 July 2005
- ^ Michael McDonald and Samual Popkin. "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter" in American Political Science Review.
- This entry is related to, but not included in the elections and voting series. Other related articles can be found at the Politics Portal.
- Franklin, Mark N. "Electoral Engineering and Cross National Turnout Differences." British Journal of Political Science. 1999
- Kanazawa, Satoshi. "A Possible Solution to the Paradox of Voter Turnout." The Journal of Politics.
- Lijphart, Arend. "Unequal Participation: Democracy's Unresolved Dilemma." American Political Science Review. vol. 91 (March 1997): 1-14. p. 12
- McDonald, Michael and Samuel Popkin. "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter." American Political Science Review. 2001.
- Niemi, Richard G. and Herbert F. Weisberg. eds. Controversies in Voting Behavior. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2001.
- Norris, Pippa. Elections and Voting Behaviour: New Challenges, New Perspectives. Aldershot: Ashgate, Dartmouth, 1998.
- Rose, Richard, ed. Electoral Participation: A Comparative Analysis. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1980.