Voter turnout is the number of citizens who vote in a given election. Americans tend to vote in low numbers. For much of the last few decades, about half of eligible people voted in presidential elections; the numbers are even smaller for off-year congressional elections (usually about 35 to 40 percent) and lower in local elections (less than 25 percent).
Why do Americans vote in small numbers? Political scientists have suggested a number of reasons:
Some scholars and pundits fret over low turnout, convinced that low turnout undermines democracy. Democracy is government by the people, they argue, and when people do not vote, they give up their part of popular sovereignty. Low turnout also reflects a strong sense of alienation among the public, a bad sign for America’s legitimacy.
Other scholars argue the opposite. Low turnout is a sign of a healthy democracy because it reflects satisfaction with the government. According to this view, people only vote when they feel threatened or angered about an issue. People who do not vote, then, are content with the status quo.
Political scientists use the term voting behavior to describe what voters do and what motivates them to do it. Put differently, students of voting behavior seek to answer the question: Why do voters make the choices they do? A variety of factors affect whether and how a person votes, including a person’s age, wealth, education, race or ethnicity, gender, religion, geographical location, partisanship, and issues at stake. Political scientists sometimes make generalizations about people’s voting behavior based on these factors: Historically, women and African Americans have tended to vote Democrat, people from the South tend to vote Republican, and wealthier people tend to vote Republican, except for the extremely wealthy, who usually vote Democrat. The following table summarizes how some factors affect whether eligible voters vote.
|Age||Senior citizens vote in very large numbers, whereas young people (18–30) vote in small numbers|
|Education||Increased education leads to increased voting|
|Wealth||Wealthier people tend to vote more than poorer people, but the wealthiest people usually vote Democrat|
|Race||White people vote more than minorities|
|Competitiveness of Candidates||Overall, people are more likely to vote in hotly contested elections|