6 March 2004

Voting in the US

I was at a party last night where a couple of the good people there
were advocating that the US needs mandatory voting, like Australia, to
boost the number of voters.  (What’s funny is that no one seemed
to question why it was better
to have more voters.  Any good answers out there [by which I mean,
do you have any supportable reasons based on logic, rather than the
typical “It’s just better when more people vote”]?)(

So I asked a friend who’s much better with American politics than I am
why we perceive that the voters in the US are so low.  Here’s his

When people talk about “low turnout” what they really are talking about is
declining turnout. I argue that most of the causes of low turnout have to do
with the denominator. When we hear reports about voter turnout, we hear about
turnout in the voting age population — many of which are excluded from voting
for a variety of reasons, including felony convictions and non-citizenship. If
we look instead at the voting eligible population (those that could vote if they
wanted to), turnout is much higher and has actually remained pretty stable since
the 1950s. There have still been declines since the turn of the century, but
that has to do more with expansions in the voting eligible population (i.e.,
extending the franchise to women and 18 – 21 year olds) than anything

If you look comparatively, however, the US does indeed have lower turnout
than most other democracies. No one is really sure about why this is the case.
One argument is that unlike voters in most democracies because of federalism
voters in the US have the opportunity to vote on a very large number of
electoral questions. We vote for local government officials and issues. We vote
for state government officials and issues. We vote for national government
officials. Voters in many other democracies only vote for the national
government, which then appoints the local and regional government officials.
Other possible explanations include: (a) weak partisanship as opposed to weak
parties  — we just don’t get excited about political issues let alone political
parties (although that appears to be changing in this election); (b) no
requirement to vote — voting in the US is a choice, but in many other
democracies there are penalties for not voting in an election; and (c)
restrictions (e.g., residency requirements and registration requirements) that
limit the pool of who is eligible to vote in a given election in the US.
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One Response to “Voting in the US”

  1. James Stewart Says:

    The US is far from the only democracy concerned about its turnout. In the UK we’ve been noting decreases in turnout for some time, particularly in local and European elections but also on a national level. The reasons are numerous and diverse, but I do find it noteworthy that a number of times, most clearly during the G8 summit in Genoa, leaders can be heard despairing of low turnouts while simultaneously disenfranchising the crowds of (primarily young) people taking to the streets around them.

    My personal feeling is that I could only ever support mandatory voting were there an ‘abstain’ option on each and every ballot. I’m willing to register my interest in voting, but I can’t always in good conscience vote for any of the candidates.