The Politics of Voter Turnout: A Comparative Analysis

Author: Tyler Lewis, UMBC

9/29/14

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Scotland had a significant decision to make on September 18th: whether to become independent of the United Kingdom or remain in union with it. In a relatively close vote, 55% of voters decided to stay with the UK, overruling the 45% that aspired to achieve independence. The shocking news, however, wasn’t the decision itself, but the astonishing level of voter turnout. 84.5% of the nation’s eligible voters showed up at the polls on decision day.

According to the IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance), 66.7% of registered American voters participate in the presidential election on an average year. The following is a list of the voter turnout percentages of countries with parliamentary or presidential voting systems similar to that of the United States:

Germany- 71.55%

Iceland- 81.44%

Italy-75.19%

Netherlands-74.56%

South Africa- 73.48%

Sweden- 83.33%

United Kingdom- 65.77%

Norway-72.23%

(Source: IDEA)  http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=231

Note: Some countries have adopted a compulsory voting system, such as Australia. This requires all eligible citizens to vote. The countries listed above do not use this technique.

The United States is notorious for having a relatively low percent of the entire population cast votes on election day, but why? Millions of Americans make the choice each year to use an hour of their time in another way. Shouldn’t there be a patriotic obligation to at least show some interest in the government they adhere to? That might sound funny, even delusional to some, but it’s the way things used to be[JL1] . According to the IDEA, almost 90% of Americans voted in the 1968 election! Nevertheless there are potential reasons why people don’t make time for voting.

It’s not rational to vote.

In 2012, approximately 132 million Americans voted in the presidential election. Our vote is essentially worth nothing because of the massive population of the states we live in. It is very easy to tell oneself, and rightfully so, that it is utterly pointless to cast a ballot. The chance of the electoral votes of a state coming down to one individual vote is practically inconceivable. Many people understand this and therefore use their time in a way that is more useful to them. The benefit of casting their one vote is so small that they naturally will use their time in a more impactful way. The only flaw in this theory is that the majority of the population still decides to vote, despite its level of impracticality.[JL2]

Is the power of the presidency to weak to be worth voting for?

Statistics have shown that South American countries and Islands in the Caribbean have the highest percentage of voter turnout. These countries have smaller populations with smaller governments. Often times these governments don’t have as many hoops to jump through when passing legislation as the United States does, and their elected leaders hold more power.[JL3]  Many of these countries are undeveloped and their citizens want change after living in undesired conditions or under corrupt rule for years. Elections are ways for these deprived citizens to communicate their eagerness for new leadership. The United States government is extremely balanced with its separation of powers. The president, while influential, can’t create much change without the approval of the legislative branch. Political agendas tend to slow progress in Congress. Because of this, many voters in the US don’t feel the president has enough stake in the game to merit a vote.[JL4]

The United States doesn’t make it easy.

There are many requirements to become an eligible voter. A person must be 18 years of age, have proof of US citizenship, be a resident of the state they are living in, and be a resident of the city/county they are voting in. Even if one meets all of these requirements and registers, voting day isn’t exactly appealing. Long wait times often deter people from showing up. Wait times are becoming an increasing problem, however, because certain states[JL5]  are providing less poll workers for areas with a larger minority population. The new Voter Identification Laws of 2014 mandate that voters living Texas, Kansas, Arizona, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana or Wisconsin must provide photo identification to vote. These contigincies hinder the amount of people that can vote, specifically minority groups that often have no photo ID’s. The Advancement Project, started by election specialists Daniel Smith and Michael Herron, found that nationally on average white voters wait 12 minutes to vote, Hispanics wait 19 minutes, and African Americans wait 24 minutes. While the states might be understaffing counties and cities due to monetary circumstances, there should at least be some sense of equality in the wait times of various races. A 50% difference is unacceptable. Federal legislation that fairly and efficiently mandates the distribution of poll workers will be difficult to pass because the Republican controlled House of Representatives are unlikely to approve a bill that puts more liberals in the voter pool.

While the voting system might not be broken, there isn’t much of an excuse to have such a low turnout in a day and age where technology is booming. There has to be more productive and efficient ways to entice people to take an hour out of their day to stop by the polls. Voting is a privilege. Compulsory voting turns it into a chore. Whether we reward voters or simplify the process, change has to occur.

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