The United States does not have low voter turnout; Americans actually are asked to vote too much, and this hurts our democracy.
ontrary to what nearly every observer of—and participant in—American elections says, the United States does not really have low voter turnout. It does, however, have relatively low voter registration and low institutional trust at the moment. We may be able to fix that by asking Americans—interestingly enough—to vote less, not more. Americans are asked to vote far more than those in other developed democracies: sometimes more than twice per year and often multiple years in a row. And this may be exhausting the American voter. Maybe Americans do not register to vote because, as voters, we are expected to do too much.
The common story goes something like this: For over a century, American voter turnout has been consistently low, inching over 60% of eligible voters not even a handful of times. For the past 60 years, the average turnout for presidential elections is approximately 55%, to the point that it is a virtual certainty that—for whoever wins the presidency—up to 75% of eligible voters did not vote for that person. This has inspired countless observers and politicians to suggest that the United States needs to do more to encourage voter participation. These numbers, though, obscure the fact that the United States does not have low voter turnout—actually, quite the reverse (see attached).
The number of registered voters who do vote is—in reality—among the highest in the world. A consistent 80-90% of registered voters can be relied upon to cast a ballot. This is more than in just about every nation in Europe, as well as more than in Canada, Japan, South Korea, and most of the developed world.
The overwhelming majority of Americans who register to vote, do.
But not always.
Sometimes people go to the ballot box and still do not vote. Specifically, they do not vote for many local offices. It is common knowledge among pollsters, political scientists, and campaign managers that local voter turnout is lower than national turnout.
And Americans have a lot of voting to do on the local level—possibly more than in any other developed nation.
Why Don’t People Vote?
One of the main reasons given for the United States’ low registration figures is the perception that registering to vote is difficult: An unnecessarily byzantine system dissuades eligible voters from becoming actual, registered voters.
This argument is undercut by the results of a Pew Research Center analysis of the 2016 election. Pew looked at Census Bureau data and determined that only 4% of registered voters did not vote because of “registration problems.” When nearly half of eligible voters choose not to, a 4% figure does not indicate a systemic problem with the process of registering to vote.
That the United States’ judicial system works against many would-be voters is a fact, but it does not come to bear when discussing eligible voters. Yes, around 10% of adults in Florida have felony convictions making them ineligible to vote. But they are, by definition, not eligible to register to vote; as such, no honest accounting of voter turnout should include them. That felons who have served their time should be allowed to vote (a stance I personally agree with) is not an argument that the voter registration process is filled with obstacles that an average person could not navigate.
Strangely, there is even evidence that making voting easier does not necessarily increase turnout. According to research published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2013, while allowing same day voter registration did increase the voting rate, allowing early voting did the opposite and actually depressed voter turnout.
One of the biggest reasons why people do not vote or register to vote is that they are young. In the last 40 years, according to the United States Elections Project, turnout for voters under the age of 30 averages less than 30%. For non-presidential years, it hovers around 20%. There are many reasons why this might be, but low youth voter turnout is an international trend that no single policy is capable of addressing. It is definitely not singularly an American problem.
Voter fatigue, on the other hand, is a well-documented happening and another plausible explanation for the lack of voter engagement: Voters are tired. In February of this year, KSNV in Las Vegas reported that one third of Nevada voters were already exhausted by election coverage—nine months before the election. Continuously lengthening campaign seasons are tiring out the electorate. There is also increasing evidence that a significant percentage of voters are disillusioned about the political process as a whole and see no reason to vote. This point is summarized by sociologist Jennifer Silva throughout hundreds of interviews that she conducted: “Look at what’s happened in my lifetime, it doesn’t really matter who’s been president…No one actually cares about us.”
But why would that make a difference in local elections? Do Americans really hate their mayors or local assembly as much as they do their presidents or congresses?
Beyond the incessant media coverage, vitriolic rhetoric, and seemingly endless electioneering, American voters may have another problem: Again, we are sick of being asked to vote so much.
The Omnibus Ballot
It is common knowledge that—every four years in the first week of November—Americans vote for a candidate for President of the United States and one United States Senate candidate. Every two years, of course, we cast a ballot for our representative in the United States House of Representatives. Less understood is that these cycles are duplicated at the state level (for the most part, Nebraska is different). Every four years, Americans vote for governor and one state senate seat and every two years for state house. Even less appreciated is how these cycles are often not only duplicated on the local level but also proliferated into multiple annual elections for even more offices and issues.
For instance, voters in the April, 2016 municipal elections in Anchorage, Alaska were asked to decide on an assemblymember, school board member, and over a dozen propositions and bonds, covering everything from capital improvements to a new marijuana sales tax to fire service bonds. In November of that year, Alaskans chose a president, a member of the House of a Representatives, a United States Senator, a state senator, and a state house representative. They decided on two state ballot measures plus whether to retain multiple judges. This constitutes over two dozen positions and important issues to vote on in just one year. And there was another municipal election the next year.
There is such a dizzying variety of positions Americans are expected to vote for that researchers from Rice University’s Local Elections in America Project, Harvard University, Vote.org, University of Georgia, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab were unable to help me discover the average number of positions that Americans see on their ballot.
This is, in part, a symptom of the extreme electoral diversity in the country. Kayla Harris, Senior Communications Associate with Ballotpedia, explained to me in an email that the number of local offices the average American is expected to vote on “can vary from single digits to dozens of local races; it depends on the number of elected offices in a given area (particularly the number of special districts) and whether or not they stagger the elections for their officeholders.”
To get a grossly anecdotal view of it, let us look at the ballots from two different places, on opposite sides of the country: Anchorage, Alaska (shown below) and Hall County, Georgia (attached here). Hall County is a rural county of approximately 200,000 people in the eighth most populated state. Anchorage is an urban area of 290,000 people in the country’s third least populated state. This November the voters in Hall County and Anchorage will be handed ballots with around two dozen offices and propositions to vote on—with well over twice that many candidates to boot.
Calculating the average local voter turnout, let alone how many offices are on the average ballot—from thousands of disparate polities across the country—is difficult at best and also not something that national governments tend to keep track of apparently. Election officials from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia all were similarly unable to provide me with any such data.
Although unable to provide the average number of positions on their local ballots, those international election officials did confirm that they vote very differently than Americans: “The omnibus U.S. ballot—requiring a vote for a range of offices down to county positions like a ‘soil and water conservation district supervisor’—is definitely something that would surprise a lot of Australians.” said Evan Ekin-Smyth of the Australian Electoral Commission to me by email, “It is very different to our experience.”
Voters from several European Union countries including Malta, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy (Full disclosure: many of these voters are my friends and family), and Canada were interviewed for this story. None remember ever seeing anything resembling the American “omnibus ballot,” and the occasions that they were asked to vote more than once a year or two years in a row were infrequent.
Almost no Americans vote for any of these positions or people. According to Portland State University’s Who Votes for Mayor? project, fewer than 15% of eligible voters actually vote in these local elections. And this is a number that has been getting steadily smaller over the decades, said Governing in 2014.
Local U.S. elections are often held on different months; as such, much of the electorate not only has far more people and positions to vote for, but they also have more days that they need to take take off from work in order to go and cast a ballot. Many researchers, advocates, and politicians from both parties have been suggesting for years that simply realigning local and national politics could substantially increase turnout. As Professor Zoltan L. Hajnal, author of America’s Uneven Democracy: Turnout, Race, and Representation in City Politics, wrote in The New York Times: “In 2016, Baltimore moved to on-cycle elections and its participation soared. Registered voter turnout went from just 13 percent in the last election before the switch to 60 percent in the first on-cycle election.”
However, even after such reforms, there remains a significant drop-off in voter turnout the further down the ballot one travels. In Baltimore’s 2018 election, 184,691 Baltimore citizens voted for governor, but only 180,037 for comptroller and only 158,015 for circuit court clerk. This is called ballot roll-off and is a pattern, said Melissa Marschall, professor of political science at Rice University, which seems to be common all over the country. More people vote for mayor than vote for school board than vote for insurance commissioner and so on the farther from the “main offices” one goes. Clearly, timing of the elections is not everything, and voter participation is being stymied by more than researchers and reformers are considering.
Choosing Not to Choose
The ability to choose is fundamental to both democracy and Western culture as a whole, informing everything from supermarkets to the ballot box. However, a growing body of research suggests that there is a limit to how much choice one can deal with. Too much choice not only fails to improve the outcome for consumers and voters; it may actually be detrimental. Asking people too many questions or offering them too many choices often stresses them out and, ultimately, leaves them dissatisfied with their choice, as well as with the entire process of choosing. To this point, according to Barry Schwartz, writing at Harvard Business Review, “Research now shows that there can be too much choice; when there is, consumers are less likely to buy anything at all, and if they do buy, they are less satisfied with their selection.”
Switzerland is well-regarded as a model of good governance, consistently scoring in the top ten on such lists. And, at the beginning of this year, the nation was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the best country in the world in which to live. It may come as a surprise then that—on average—fewer than half of registered Swiss voters actually cast a ballot. During the 2015 national election, as Domhnall O’Sullivan reported, only 34% of voters went to the polls. O’Sullivan also noted that election researchers pointed to two specific reasons why so few Swiss voters actually bother to participate: frequency and complexity.
The Swiss are asked to vote up to four times per year and not only on candidates for elected offices on all levels. They are also expected to vote on a complicated array of local and national issues, “four times yearly, registered citizens decide on everything from the mundane (should the trees on Geneva’s Plainpalais square be torn down and replanted?) to the momentous (should the country curb immigration from the European Union?).”
It seems unreasonable to expect just about any person to be truly informed about so many different offices, candidates, and positions. We have made our elections an intolerable mess, while, at the same time, asking people to participate in them more and more. Americans are exhausted. At a time when trust in just about every American institution (especially political ones) is abysmally low, is it unrealistic to suggest that citizens just want government to work? And the more choices voters are given, the less invested they become in the process, players, and outcome. We have allowed ourselves to become demoralized because few of us are truly informed.
Maybe we, Americans, have an unrealistic expectation of ourselves. We are somehow supposed to be conversant in tax policies and regulations, covering everything from labor to the environment at the local, state, and federal levels. We are supposed to understand everything from climate change to epidemiology. We are asked to differentiate between municipal bond returns of 6.2% over five years and 6.4% over three, while also deciding whether or not to ban Chinese products and services. Do we do things like reform police unions to rein in law enforcement or reallocate funding to other methods of community policing? What exactly are the qualifications for a county insurance commissioner or a medical examiner? As John Petrocik, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri told me, “[Voting] is a wearing experience for all but the most politically motivated, and that fraction is a small share of the population.” Americans want to be responsible, but we want to be honest too. And if we are being honest, it is likely that most of us know a lot less about a lot more than we may want to admit.
“The bottom line,” Petrocik continued, “is that a conscientious citizen in many places in the U.S. can reasonably expect to be asked to vote for something almost every year, maybe more than once a year, for a wide variety of offices—many of which most voters know next to nothing about. The result is low turnout for most of the lesser offices. That erodes any ‘voting habit’ that might be emerging among most of us, depressing turnout in general because elections are just creating noise for people.”
American voters are nearly universally derided as parochial and uninformed: an endemic ignorance producing an, at best, apathetic electorate. But is it not just as likely that we are simply burning ourselves out?
Then again, is it even that essential that everyone votes? The number of people voting does not seem to correlate with efficiency in government. On the other side of the Swiss model stands Belgium, which scores highest on voter turnout but had no functioning government for over a year, from 2010–2011. And this happened again in 2019, too. Belgium is still here, and Belgians seem to be no worse for the wear.
Many people do not want to vote. Maybe that is okay. More likely, though, we have over-complicated things. It is possible that we do not need to vote on every single issue and candidate.
Perhaps if we want people to stop opting-out, we should give them a real reason and means to opt-in. Our schools do not test students on every subject on the same day at the same time; perhaps our elections, in turn, should not expect the average American voter to do the equivalent. The omnibus ballot is sensibly intimidating for many people. Being informed enough to cast a responsible vote on just three or four issues is a full-time job. Asking people busy with jobs, school, kids, spouses, bills, and all the varying stresses of life also to devote significant time, money, and effort to understanding all the minutia of public policy (and the details of every candidate and the offices they are running for) might not be a realistic request. Sensible people may respond by refusing to engage with the process at all.
Thomas Brown is a dual citizen of the United State and European Union, a former campaign manager, history teacher, and freelance writer. He runs The Swamp and is regularly featured in Grunge, Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, and other outlets. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter.