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Op-Ed: Why Americans Do - and Don't - Vote

Why Americans Do - and Don't - Vote
November 2000

The United States ranks 138 out of 171 countries in a global survey of average voter turnout across the world since 1945. Among the established democracies, as characterized by UCLA's Arend Lijphart, the US ranks 36 out of 36.

In 1996, over 100 million eligible Americans did not vote in the presidential elections. In 1998, an additional 20 million stayed home. At the last presidential election, a quick glance reveals that a seemingly respectable 63.4% of registered voters - over 92.7 million Americans - voted in the presidential elections.

However, at least 50 million eligible voters are not registered; actual voters thus accounted for only 47.2% of the total voting age population. Politicians and pundits alike bemoan the disappearance of the US voter, and blame it on any factor at hand, from the internet to global warming. Rarely, however, do they stop to examine what we really know about voter turnout. International IDEA - The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance - has compiled the most comprehensive collection of global political participation statistics available today, which has provided surprising answers to many turnout questions.

Many commentators suggest that the relatively low voter turnout in the United States is atypical for a literate and wealthy country. However, International IDEA has not found any real correlation between a country's literacy level and its voter turnout. Furthermore, while literacy is often seen as a key to high turnout, the ability to read and write can not be equated with political literacy - the ability and willingness to make a coherent choice on election day.

The Institute tracked a steady increase in turnout across the world from 1945 to 1990 from 61% to 68%, and then a decline back to 64% in the 1990s. The US is well below this global trend, with an average turnout of 48.3%. US turnout is often contrasted with Western Europe, which has enjoyed both the highest and the most stable turnout rates amongst regions, with an average of 77% in the postwar period.

However, this happy state of affairs is not entirely due to economic circumstances, as is often supposed. The relationship between a country's wealth (as measured by election year GDP) and its participation rate was not found to be significant. The absolute number of potential voters does not determine turnout - high and low voter turnout is almost evenly distributed across countries with large and small populations.

While there is a widespread belief that participation in political life enhances the quality of society, there is little agreement on what constitutes a good or even democratic level of voter turnout. Globally, there are also few definitive answers to the question of who precisely does not vote. However, we can answer some questions on the circumstances surrounding higher turnout elections.

Over time, countries with a parliamentary system of government have enjoyed a higher turnout than presidential systems, although there was a convergence throughout the 1990s. Additionally, the use of proportional representation voting systems, as in many western European countries, has seen turnout rates up to 10% higher than in US style 'first-past-the-post' systems. In addition, frequent elections can lead to voter fatigue, which may help to explain why the US cannot sustain its presidential year turnout at midterm elections, along with the relative length and complexity of ballots, which can discourage voting.

Important structural issues relating to registration and voting can also affect turnout. The ease, complexity and accessibility of the registration system influences turnout, especially where election day registration is not available. The passage of the National Voter Registration Act in 1993 (the 'Motor Voter' Act) and the subsequent development of the National Mail Voter Registration Form may be behind the presidential year increase in the proportion of the US voting age population registered to vote, from 70.6% in 1992 to 74.4% in 1996. This was the highest percentage of voter registration since reliable records were first available in 1960. In recent years, the internet has been used by participation campaigners to disseminate the National Mail Voter Registration Form and to generate election day reminders, especially among younger potential voters.

Access to voting facilities can also be an issue. Facilities such as absentee ballots and the ability to vote prior to election day can increase turnout. A primary reason for the introduction of the all mail election in Oregon is to increase turnout; as such the results will be eagerly awaited, not least by Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who has challenged his state to be number one in turnout this November.

An important indicator that bodes well for turnout rates next week is competitiveness. International IDEA's research indicates that the competitiveness of an election works to stimulate an interest in voting that leads to a higher turnout. With a presidential contest that is too close to call leading the ballot, along with tight races for the Senate and House of Representatives, the US may be set to reverse its turnout decline.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh is Secretary-General of International IDEA (The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).

For more information, please visit International IDEA's Voter Turnout Website:

Press contacts:

Mark Salter
Senior Press and Information Officer
International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22
Monika Ericson
Assistant Press and Information Officer
International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22



International IDEA
Tel: +46 8 698 3700, Fax: +46 8 20 24 22
International IDEA, Strömsborg, S-103 34 Stockholm, Sweden