What Causes Low Voter Turnout in the United States?

By: Anne M. Cizmar, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science for EKU Online

The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among developed countries. In the 2012 presidential election, only about 55% of the voting age population cast a ballot. Voter turnout is even lower in midterm election years when the president is not up for reelection. Many journalists, pundits, and political science scholars have studied the low voter turnout rate with the goal of determining why voter turnout is so low in America, and what might be done to improve turnout rates.

There are a number of theories to explain why voter turnout is so low in the U.S. One theory argues that voting is “irrational” in the sense that the costs of voting outweigh the potential benefits. In order to vote, people must take time out of their busy weekday schedules to go to the polls. They must also invest their time and energy to learning about the candidates and issues and making a decision. In return, many elections are noncompetitive with the winner seeming fairly certain in advance. As a result, some voters perceive few benefits of voting, but many costs associated with the effort of voting.

The “costs” of voting in the U.S. also include electoral laws that may make it difficult for some people to vote. These laws include Election Day occurring on Tuesday in the middle of the workweek, as well as registration laws in most states that require voters to be registered at least 30 days prior to the election. Furthermore, if voters move they must update their own registration—it is not automatically transferred. Some states require voters to show identification when they arrive at the polls. These laws may negatively impact turnout.

Additionally, many Americans are apathetic about politics. Political science research has shown that most Americans are unknowledgeable about how the government works and the candidates and issues of the day. Many Americans complain that they don’t like either party/candidate or don’t like politics. This may also help to explain low voter turnout.

Still, voter turnout rates are not equal for all Americans. Some groups more regularly vote than others. For example, older Americans are more likely to vote than those in the 18-29 year old range. People with higher incomes are more likely to turnout to vote, along with those who have more education. People who have high levels of political efficacy (the belief that government is responsive to people like them), and who are more interested in politics are also more likely to vote.

There is some indication that changes in electoral laws may help to improve voter turnout rates. For example, some states have adopted Election Day Registration, which means that voters in that state don’t have to register prior to the election to be eligible to vote. Additionally, some states allow early voting in which citizens can vote at their convenience at their local Board of Elections rather than having only one day to vote. Finally, the federal Motor Voter Act requires states to offer voter registration cards to people when they obtain their driver’s license. All of these policies may help to increase voter turnout as they reduce the burdens associated with voting.

The potential problem with low voter turnout is that the government may be more responsive to citizens who regularly vote. Elected officials are very motivated by a desire to be reelected, so they have an incentive to follow the preferences of voters. This can lead to bias in the legislation that is passed. Legislation will reflect the will of those who more regularly vote, which means that those with lower incomes, less education, or are younger in age may find that policies do not reflect their preferences

Published on November 01, 2016