Introduction

If you had to explain how the United States government works to a friend, what would you say? Would you explain how our government is different from a monarchy or a dictatorship? Would you talk about the basic tenets of democracy, namely, electing representatives to serve on behalf of the people?

Background

Chances are, you would mention the process of voting. Voting is central to how our government functions – after all, voters decide who the decision-makers will be. However, voting itself is a decision that citizens make, contingent on a variety of factors. Not every citizen casts their ballot in every election. To talk about who does go to the polls, we use the concept of voter turnout. 

Voter Turnout

Although turnout can be measured in different ways, ultimately when we talk about voter turnout, we’re referring to the number or percentage of eligible voters who show up to vote in a given election. Voter turnout is essentially a fraction that asks what part of the whole population we have at the polls. This amount fluctuates in every election for a number of reasons.

How It Works

It is generally agreed that the more voters make their voices heard through the electoral process, the more representative a democracy will be. Unfortunately, the United States has low voter turnout rates when compared to other modern democracies across the globe. Typically, only around 50 to 60 percent of America’s voting-age population votes in presidential elections, with even less voting in midterm and primary elections. Many eligible citizens aren’t even registered to vote.

So why exactly is turnout so low? Although there are many reasons, experts generally point to our voting system, which can be inaccessible for many eligible participants. In many states and localities, restrictive laws exist that suppress voter turnout by making it more difficult to cast a ballot. These laws may require prospective voters to show specified forms of identification at the polls, impose restrictions on how and when to register to vote, and even draw voting districts in ways that ensure that large numbers of votes are wasted. Additionally, Election Day is always held on a Tuesday, when many individuals may find it difficult to make it to the polls due to work and child care responsibilities.

Low voter turnout isn’t just due to a difficult voting process. Many citizens simply don’t care enough to get involved in the political process, a phenomenon known as political apathy. This may result from disillusionment with the two-party system, which can be restrictive for independent voters who don’t identify with either Democrat or Republican values. It may also be a product of distrust for our political institutions, or a belief that voting doesn’t really make a difference. It can be especially easy to believe this because the Electoral College, America’s presidential voting system, creates solidly “red” and “blue” states like Oklahoma and California, where individual votes don’t tend to matter as much. Individual votes instead tend to matter most in “swing states” like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. This can be potentially discouraging for red and blue state voters. All of these factors can limit a voter’s self-efficacy, meaning the voter’s perception of their own ability to impact politics. Low self-efficacy results in a lower likelihood of voting – and lower voter turnout overall. 

So What?

As you can see, there are a wide variety of reasons why voter turnout fluctuates in the United States. Voting is a decision, and many decide they do not have the time or resources necessary to cast a ballot. If individuals don’t know an election is happening or are restricted from participating, the decision is made for them. What’s important is making sure that citizens are motivated and able to vote every November. We might consider policies such as making Election Day a national holiday, automatically registering voters when they turn 18, or curbing voter ID laws and early voting restrictions that many states have implemented. The first thing we can do is talk to friends and family, and make sure they know what’s at stake next time they choose not to visit the voting booth. We all have the power not only to make our own voices heard in the political process, but to elevate the voices of others by convincing them to participate with us.

    Learn More

    1. “Voter Turnout.” Fairvote, https://www.fairvote.org/voter_turnout#voter_turnout_101.
    2. “Voter Turnout Data.” United States Election Project, http://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/voter-turnout-data.
    3. Hill, David. American Voter Turnout: An Institutional Perspective. Taylor & Francis, 2018.

    Think Further

    1. Why is it important to have high voter turnout? 
    2. What are some additional reasons that prospective voters may feel apathetic about the political process?
    3. How can we promote greater levels of self-efficacy among our nation’s citizens?

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