Before making sweeping statements about what Donald Trump’s Election Day victory says about everyday Americans, you might want to consider one fact: Only about one-fourth of Americans eligible to vote actually voted for him.
According to the US Elections Project’s count so far, only about 56.9 percent of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot on Election Day. That means 43.1 percent of people eligible to vote just didn’t. (The voter turnout rate will increase over the next few days as the final votes are tallied.)
It also means that Hillary Clinton, based on the latest estimates, got a little more than 27 percent of the voting-eligible population’s vote, while Trump got just 27 percent. (Trump won the Electoral College but may have lost the popular vote.) So a little more than a quarter of the voting-eligible population chose the next president.
This isn’t a total anomaly in US elections. Voter turnout has been fairly stable over the past few elections, hitting 55.3 percent in 2000, 60.7 percent in 2004, 62.2 percent in 2008, and 58.6 percent in 2012, according to the US Elections Project. So President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush also won their last elections with around 30 percent of the voting-eligible population — not a huge difference from 27 percent.
Not every democracy deals with voter turnout this low. According to the Pew Research Center (which estimates voter turnout a bit differently than the US Elections Project), the US actually has below-average turnout among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): About 53.6 percent of the US voting-age population turned out to vote in 2012, while 87.2 percent did in a recent election in Belgium, 66 percent did in Germany, and 61.1 percent did in the UK.
In the aftermath of Clinton’s loss, some Democrats have argued that the low voter turnout was driven by Republicans’ voter suppression efforts, such as strict voter ID laws and early voting cuts. But the research shows that these types of efforts have little to no impact on voter turnout. And, again, US voter turnout has been fairly stable in presidential elections — typically fluctuating between around 55 and 60 percent.
Still, there are some policies that may explain the difference between the US and other countries. Unlike most wealthy countries, the US doesn’t automatically register voters (as Germany and Sweden do), and it doesn’t seek them out aggressively to push them to register (as the UK does). And the US definitely doesn’t go as far as Belgium or Australia, which make voting compulsory — an idea with some merit, as Dylan Matthews explained for Vox.
But a lot of the problem seems to be enthusiasm. As MIT political science professor Adam Berinsky wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world. … Political interest and engagement, after all, determine to a large extent who votes and who does not.”
Easing barriers might help a little, then, but they’re not going to make up the entire difference. People just need to get interested in what’s happening around them.
Until then, around a quarter of Americans who are eligible to vote will be deciding the president of the United States.