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What is voter turnout and why does it matter for democracies?

The level of engagement and participation of its citizens in the electoral process shows how healthy democracy is. And one of the most significant indicators of this is voter turnout or the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballot in a given election. 

A high voter turnout usually shows an inclusive democracy, and a low voter turnout can indicate public and people’s distrust, often called apathy. 

In this article, we will explore voter turnout, its factors, the consequences of low voter turnout, and how to improve voter participation in the electoral process.

What is voter turnout?

Voter turnout shows the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballot on an election day. It is a measure of civic engagement and political participation in democratic societies.

High voter turnout is a positive sign indicating that citizens actively participate in the voting process and exercise their rights. Low voter turnout may indicate voter apathy or simply a general lack of interest in politics.

Voter turnout can be affected by several factors, including the competitiveness of the election, the importance of the issues discussed in political races and the accessibility of polling places. 

Political campaigns and election officials want to increase voter turnout through voter education initiatives, targeted outreach efforts, and other strategies that encourage citizens to vote.

What is considered a good voter turnout?

A good turnout depends on the context and type of election. While democratic countries aim for a high voter turnout, no specific percentage marks a “good” or a “bad” turnout.

What determines voter turnout?

Many factors can influence turnout rates. Some are demographic characteristics, social and economic factors, political context, and the electoral system. 

The research shows that some critical factors affecting voter turnout include age, education, income, race/ethnicity, gender, party affiliation, and level of civic engagement. For example, older, more educated and higher-income-earning people are generally more likely to vote than younger, less educated people and people with lower incomes. 

No single factor determines voter turnout – a complex mix of individual, social, and political factors influences it.

Let’s quickly have a look at the most common factors.

Socioeconomic Factors

For a start, individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to vote. That makes sense because they often better understand the political process and the impact of their vote.

And as mentioned, higher-income individuals could feel more related to the political process and are more likely to vote. Older citizens also vote more often since they have a sense of civic duty and are interested in pushing programs that protect seniors.

Political Factors

Close races and electoral competitiveness can motivate more people to vote as well. They will feel responsible for participating if their vote can make a difference in the outcome.

If a vote can make a difference in pushing a program that resonates with the needs of people, those people are more likely to vote.

Finally, strong party loyalty is also a driving force for voter turnout.

Institutional Factors

Ease of registration impacts voter turnout – if voting is complicated and requires people to do something before the election day, it may discourage potential voters. So the more complex the voting system is, the lower the turnout level. Or, differently said, simpler election systems generally encourage higher participation.

The convenience of voting locations and hours on the election and the possibility of voting early or by post can also influence turnout. Many people cannot vote on a specific day or location and prefer different voting options.

How is voter turnout calculated?

Voter turnout is calculated by dividing the number of ballots cast by the number of eligible voters for a specific election. The resulting number is multiplied by 100 to get the percentage of voter turnout. 

For example, if there are 1000 eligible voters and 600 of them cast their ballots, the voter turnout would be calculated as follows:

600 (ballots cast) / 1000 (eligible voters) x 100 = 60% (voter turnout)

The definition of “eligible voters” may vary and include all registered voters, but sometimes it only includes citizens of a particular voting age who meet specific residency requirements.

Voter turnout vs. voter apathy

Voter turnout and voter apathy are two related but distinct concepts. 

Voter turnout is the percentage of voters who actually cast a ballot in an election. 

On the other hand, voter apathy refers to a lack of interest or motivation to participate in the political process. Apathetic voters believe their votes don’t matter and have no interest in being involved in the elections.

Low voter turnout can signify apathy but is not the only possible cause. Elements such as voter suppression, difficulty accessing polling stations and other barriers to participation can all impact the turnout rate.

Conversely, high voter turnout does not necessarily mean no voter apathy. Voters may still feel dissatisfied with the political process even if they participate in elections.

Consequences of Low Voter Turnout

Low voter turnout has several negative consequences for a democracy, such as unrepresentative government, decreased legitimacy and marginalization of minority groups.

Unrepresentative Government

When a significant portion of the population abstains from voting, the elected government may not accurately represent the will and preferences of the people. And that means that policy decisions are not in the majority’s best interests.

Decreased Legitimacy

Low voter turnout can also undermine the legitimacy of the government. Although the leading party has a legitimate right to run a country, it may be perceived as needing more public support.

Low support can make it more challenging for elected officials to implement policy changes and govern effectively.

Marginalization of Minority Groups

Low voter turnout often affects marginalized communities that could face barriers to voting, such as voter suppression tactics, lack of access to voting resources, or simply an absence of trust in the political process.

If those marginalized groups don’t vote, their voices won’t be presented in the government.

How to increase voter turnout?

There are several ways to increase voter turnout and the most common ones include the following:

  • Implementing early voting, mail-in ballots, and online voter registration makes voting easier. All this makes it more convenient for people to participate in the electoral process.
  • Increasing voter education by providing accessible and comprehensive information about the candidates, issues and voting process.
  • Mobilizing voters through targeted outreach and community organizing efforts to increase voter participation, particularly among marginalized groups.
  • Making voting a cultural norm by promoting voting as a civic duty and the idea that every vote counts, thus creating a culture where voter turnout is consistently high.
  • Holding elections on weekends or holidays makes it easier for people to vote without taking time off work or worrying about private duties.

Targeting youth voters is another effective way that influences turnout rates. For instance, implementing civic education programs in schools, lowering the voting age to 16 and encouraging political parties to engage with youth voters can affect turnout rates.

Another tactic to improve turnout is engaging minority communities. This includes providing voting resources and information in multiple languages, addressing voter suppression tactics and encouraging political parties to be more inclusive in their platforms.

Whatever the factors used, increasing voter turnout must require a multifaceted approach to address the structural barriers to voting, the cultural and social factors and anything that influences people’s decision to participate in the voting process.

Can compulsory voting improve voter turnout?

Compulsory voting means that eligible citizens are required to vote or will face penalties. 

While this can lead to higher participation, this approach often doesn’t align with the democratic values of most countries and possibly can won’t lead to more informed and engaged voters.

What is the voter turnout in the US?

The voter turnout in the United States varies depending on the type of election and the year. It generally goes around 50-60% for presidential elections and is lower for midterm elections. 

It can also vary by state and demographic group and some states and groups could consistently have higher or lower turnout rates than others.

As an example, the voter turnout for the 2020 US general election was the highest in decades, with 62.8% of people of voting age casting their ballots. However, according to this research, the US still ranks 31st among 50 countries in terms of voting-age population turnout.

Highest and lowest turnouts in US during the recent elections

The turnout rates differentiate from state to state and the 2020 election data by state shows that the differences can be pretty high.

Three states with the highest voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election were:

  • Minnesota had the highest rate of any state, with 79.96% of eligible voters casting ballots. 
  • Colorado had the second-highest turnout rate of any state, with 77.8% of eligible voters using their voting right.
  • Maine had the third-highest voter turnout rate of any state, with 76.8%.

Three states with the lowest voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election:

  • West Virginia had the lowest rate of any state, with only 52.9% of eligible voters casting ballots.
  • Arkansas had the second-lowest turnout rate of any state, with only 53.4% of people voting.
  • Hawaii had the third-lowest voter turnout rate of any state, with 57.3%.

How does the United States compare to other countries?

Compared to other established democracies, the United States has relatively low voter turnout rates. In the 2020 presidential election, voter turnout reached 66.8%, the highest in over a century. However, countries such as Belgium, Australia, and Sweden have a turnout that often exceeds 80%, making the US turnout lower than that.

Closing thoughts

By addressing the factors contributing to low voter turnout and implementing strategies to improve participation, democratic societies can work towards unlocking the true potential of democratic systems. 

Increasing voter turnout means that societies can choose more inclusive, responsive, and effective governments serving all citizens. In that sense, voter turnout is a powerful measure that political leaders should keep high.

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