clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why US voter turnout lags behind other advanced democracies

“In some places there are active measures to make it harder to vote, and in some places there’s an absent effort to make it easier to vote,” an elections expert says.

Voters line up to cast their ballot just before the polls open in the mid-term election on November 06, 2018 in Miami, Florida.
Voters line up to cast their ballot just before the polls open in the midterm election on November 6, 2018, in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

While millions of Americans will cast ballots in the US midterm elections on Tuesday, it’s likely that voter turnout rates will be far lower than in other advanced democratic countries.

Why? Because the US makes it much harder to vote than other developed democracies do.

Before we get to that, here are just a few statistics to ponder: In 2012, there were 241 million people of voting age in the US, but only 130.2 million actually cast ballots in the general election — a turnout rate of just 58.6 percent (this excludes those ineligible because they’re convicted felons or noncitizens, but it’s a commonly used metric). And in the 2016 presidential election, only 61 percent of the US voting-age population went to the polls, according to the Census Bureau.

Compare that to recent elections that saw 87 percent turnout in Belgium, 82 percent in Sweden, and 80 percent in Denmark, according to a May study by the Pew Research Center. The US isn’t the worst, though. That distinction belongs to Switzerland, where only 39 percent of voting-age people cast ballots in their 2015 election.

But overall, the US ranks 26th out of 32 developed democracies when it comes to the percentage of voting-age people who actually participate in doing their civic duty. Pew has a striking chart below that shows America embarrassingly far down the list:

Votes cast compares to voting-age population and registered voters.
Votes cast compares to voting-age population and registered voters.
Pew Research Center

Consider this: If “did not vote” was a candidate in the last presidential election, that “candidate” would’ve defeated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a landslide. Yes, seriously. The map below shows what that result would’ve looked like in real life.

Justin Levitt, a voting expert at Loyola Law School, walked me through why the US lags so far behind its democratic peers. The issue, he told me, is that “in some places there are active measures to make it harder to vote, and in some places there’s an absent effort to make it easier to vote.”

It ultimately comes down to the difficulty surrounding voter registration and the lack of convenience for people to cast a ballot — two factors other countries have taken into consideration.

Let’s take each in turn.

The biggest problem: it’s hard to register to vote

The US has low numbers when it comes to the amount of people old enough to vote who actually do. But about 90 percent of Americans who are registered to vote actually cast ballots.

One way to increase turnout during US elections, then, would be to make it easier for Americans to get on voter rolls. Some democracies — like Sweden and Germany — automatically register voting-age citizens. The problem is that the US doesn’t make signing up to vote a priority.

It’s been that way since the 19th century, Levitt says, because some people have always tried to keep certain others from voting. At that time, many Americans wanted to keep the Irish and other immigrants from casting a ballot. That tendency — to keep minorities and “others” from having a voice in the voting booth — persists today.

“If you showed our registration system to a 19th-century voter, it’d look kind of the same to that disenfranchised Irishman,” Levitt told me.

Some ways to make it easier could include allowing anyone to register to vote online or letting someone’s registration transfer if they move out of state. But perhaps the best way to ensure people can register to vote is by permitting them to sign up on the day of the election. States that allow people to register and vote on Election Day have higher rates of participation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But in some places, it’s getting harder to register, not easier. In Georgia, for example, 600,000 voters — about 10 percent of those registered — have been removed from voter rolls. That’s part of a trend: Since 2010, 11 states passed laws that make it harder for citizens to vote, the Brennan Center for Justice says.

So voter suppression and difficulty registering are the two main reasons the US falls behind so many others. But timing is the other major factor.

“An absence of customer service”

Some countries, like Australia and Belgium, have mandatory voting. Basically, citizens must cast a ballot or pay a fine if they don’t, incentivizing many to get to the polls.

That’s not the case in the United States, where there are many factors that keep voters away. “There is an absence of customer service,” Levitt told me.

Take the day people vote in the US: Tuesday. In the 19th century, Congress selected Tuesday as the country’s Election Day as a sort of compromise. Sunday, when most countries vote, is the Christian Sabbath, a holy day of rest for many. Monday didn’t work because it was too close to Sunday, and Wednesday was a market day for farmers. So, America ended up with Tuesday.

People line up for early voting outside of the Pulaski County Regional Building on November 3, 2014 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
People line up for early voting outside of the Pulaski County Regional Building on November 3, 2014, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Two potential solutions to this problem are to either move voting day to a weekend or make it a national holiday. Levitt, the elections expert, doesn’t like these ideas since even on those days, many people still work at restaurants, hotels, airports, and more. The proposal would only be effective if everyone got the day off, he said, but that’s unlikely.

The best thing to do, Levitt proposes, is what some states already allow: a long, robust voting period. That means giving people weeks before Election Day to cast a ballot when it’s most convenient for them, or at least making it simple to send in an absentee or provisional ballot. But 13 states don’t have early voting and ask for a reason why someone would want to send in an absentee ballot.

Until the US makes it easier to vote — by expanding the ability to register and giving people time to get to the polls — the US will continue to lag behind other countries in voter turnout. For the presumed champion of democracy, that’s not a healthy trend.