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).

Explanations for Low Turnout

Why do Americans vote in small numbers? Political scientists have suggested a number of reasons:

  • Inconvenience: For many, getting to the polling place on election day is very difficult: Many people have to work, and some have trouble getting to their precinct.
  • Registration: All voters must register ahead of the election (sometimes a month or more in advance); the registration process can be confusing and at times difficult to follow.
  • Similarity of the parties: Some citizens believe the parties are very similar, so voting will not make a difference
  • Alienation: People do not vote because they feel that the government does not care about them or listen to their concerns.
  • Frequency of elections: Americans hold elections more frequently than most other democracies; voters find it difficult to vote on so many different days.
  • Lack of competitiveness: Many races in the United States are very lopsided, so voters are likely to stay home, thinking the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

The Multiple Meanings of Low Turnout

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.

Voting Behavior

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.




AgeSenior citizens vote in very large numbers, whereas young people (18–30) vote in small numbers
EducationIncreased education leads to increased voting
WealthWealthier people tend to vote more than poorer people, but the wealthiest people usually vote Democrat
RaceWhite people vote more than minorities
Competitiveness of CandidatesOverall, people are more likely to vote in hotly contested elections

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