May 6, 2015

U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries

By International Standards, U.S. Voter Turnout is Low

Country % of voting age population % of registered voters
Belgium (2014)* 87.2% 89.4%
Turkey (2011)* 86.4% 87.2%
Sweden (2014) 82.6% 85.8%
Denmark (2011) 81.8% 87.7%
Australia (2013)* 80.5% 93.2%
South Korea (2012) 80.4% 75.8%
Iceland (2013) 80.0% 81.4%
Norway (2013) 77.9% 78.2%
Israel (2015) 76.1% 72.3%
New Zealand (2014) 73.2% 77.9%
Finland (2015) 73.1% 66.9%
Greece (2015)* 71.9% 63.6%
France (2012) 71.2% 80.4%
Netherlands (2012) 71.0% 74.6%
Austria (2013) 69.3% 74.9%
Italy (2013) 68.5% 75.2%
Germany (2013) 66.0% 71.5%
Mexico (2012)* 64.6% 63.1%
Ireland (2011) 63.8% 69.9%
Hungary (2014) 63.4% 61.8%
Spain (2011) 63.3% 68.9%
U.K. (2010) 61.1% 65.8%
Czech Republic (2013) 60.0% 59.5%
Slovakia (2012) 57.8% 59.1%
Portugal (2011) 56.6% 58.9%
Luxembourg (2013)* 55.1% 91.1%
Estonia (2015) 54.7% 64.2%
Poland (2010) 54.5% 55.3%
Canada (2011) 54.2% 61.1%
Slovenia (2014) 54.1% 51.7%
UNITED STATES (2012) 53.6% 84.3%
Japan (2014) 52.0% 52.7%
Chile (2013) 45.7% 42.0%
Switzerland (2011) 40.0% 49.1%

Pew Research Center

On Thursday, voters in the United Kingdom will elect a new Parliament, continuing a busy electoral calendar in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Greece, Israel, Finland and Estonia are among the countries that already have held national elections this year. Poland, Mexico, Turkey and Canada have big national elections scheduled in the coming weeks and months. And in the U.S., the 2016 presidential election campaign already is starting to take shape.

All that electoral activity got us wondering: How does voter turnout in the U.S., regularly decried as dismal, compare with other developed democracies? As is so often the case, the answer is a lot more complicated than the question.

Political scientists typically measure turnout by looking at votes cast as a percentage of eligible voters. Since many hard-to-measure factors can affect eligibility (citizenship, imprisonment, residency rules and other legal barriers), in practice turnout calculations usually are based on the estimated voting-age population. By that measure, the U.S. lags most of its peers, landing 31st among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states.

U.S. turnout in 2012 was 53.6%, based on 129.1 million votes cast for president and an estimated voting-age population of just under 241 million people. Among OECD countries, the highest turnout rates were in Belgium (87.2%), Turkey (86.4%) and Sweden (82.6%). Switzerland consistently has the lowest turnout, with just 40% of the voting-age population casting ballots in the 2011 federal legislative elections, the most recent.

However, Belgium and Turkey are among the 28 nations around the world (and six in the OECD) where voting is compulsory, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. (One canton in Switzerland, also an OECD member nation, has compulsory voting.) While compulsory-voting laws aren’t always strictly enforced, their presence or absence can have dramatic impacts on turnout: Of the five highest-turnout OECD countries in recent elections, three have laws requiring their citizens to go to the polls and cast ballots. Conversely, turnout plunged in Chile after it moved from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012 (and began automatically enrolling eligible citizens): from 87% of registered voters in the 2010 presidential election to 42% in 2013, even as the voter rolls swelled by 64%.

Chile’s situation points to yet another complicating factor: the distinction between who’s eligible to vote and who’s actually registered. In most countries, the government takes the lead in getting people’s names on the rolls – whether by registering them automatically once they become eligible (as in, for example, Sweden or Germany) or by aggressively seeking out and registering eligible voters (as in the U.K. and Australia). As a result, turnout looks pretty similar regardless of whether you’re looking at voting-age population or registered voters.

In the U.S., by contrast, registration is mainly an individual responsibility. And registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country: Only about 65% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 71% of the voting-age citizenry) is registered, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 96% in Sweden and 93% in the U.K.

As a consequence, turnout comparisons based only on registered voters may not be very meaningful. For instance, U.S. turnout in 2012 was 84.3% of registered voters, a relatively lofty seventh among OECD countries. But registered voters here are a much more self-selected group, already more likely to vote because they took the trouble to register themselves.

There are even more ways to calculate turnout. Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who runs the United States Election Project, estimates turnout as a share of the “voting-eligible population” (or VEP) by subtracting non-citizens and ineligible felons from the voting-age population, and adding eligible overseas voters. Using those calculations, U.S. turnout improves somewhat, to 58% of the 2012 voting-eligible population. However, comparable estimates aren’t available for other countries.

However measured, U.S. turnout rates have been fairly consistent over the past several decades, despite some election-to-election variation. Since 1980, voting-age turnout has varied within a 9-percentage-point range – from 48% in 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected, to 57% in 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House. (Turnout, of course, varies considerably among different racial, ethnic and age groups.)

But in several other OECD countries, turnout has drifted lower in recent decades. Japan, for instance, has seen turnout fall from 75% in 1990 to 52% this past December. Greece, despite having a compulsory-voting law on the books (though not enforced), has seen turnout fall from 89% in 2000 to 72% in January’s election. And in Slovenia, after a burst of post-independence enthusiasm in 1992 (when 85% of the voting-age population cast ballots), turnout rapidly fell off and sunk to 54% last year – a drop of 31 percentage points in just over two decades of democracy.

In the U.K., turnout has bounced up and down since the mid-1970s, peaking at 75.4% of the voting-age population in 1992 and bottoming at 57.6% in 2001, when Tony Blair won a second term as prime minister. Since that low point, turnout has risen two elections in a row, though there’s no guarantee it will continue to do so. The Hansard Society, which studies political engagement in the U.K., has found that while 82% of people in the U.K. believe they’re registered to vote, only 69% said they were “certain” or “likely” to do so, 5 percentage points below the 2010 level.

Topics: Elections and Campaigns, World Elections

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

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12 Comments

  1. chris Christophj2 weeks ago

    More people here are informed on the criminal activity of the us government and its subsidiaries

    Reply
  2. Liana Palko3 months ago

    The voting stats on Canada are incorrect. I don’t know how Per Research went about getting their numbers but they are wrong. 61.1% of eligible Canadians (we don’t distinguish between ‘registered’ and ‘eligible’ Canadians because we have automatic voter registration) voted in our 2011 federal election. The turnout for the 2015 election was even higher – the final number has not been tallied yet but at least 68% of the eligible population voted. In fact, our lowest voter turnout in a federal election since Confederation (1867) was 58.8% in 2004, 4 percentage points higher than what you claim our turnout was in 2011. This chart is inaccurate elections.ca/content.aspx?sectio…

    Reply
    1. Liana Palko3 months ago

      Edit – the lowest voter turnout was in 2008, not 2004.

      Reply
  3. Frederik Beran1 year ago

    What explains the differences in voter turnout? The article mentions one reason: compulsory voting. Are there others? I suggest one might be the difference in electoral systems, eg proportional representation vs first-past-the-post. With the latter, used in the UK and Canada, there are many “safe” ridings in which one’s vote does not make any difference in the outcome and there is little incentive to vote.

    It would be interesting to study the differences in more detail, not only by comparing country by country but also between elections in a particular country.

    Reply
  4. Kochevnik1 year ago

    The reasons behind the low US voting age percentage of active voters: 1.) a relatively significant amount of immigrants; 2.) most states having restrictions on felons voting (some states prohibit voting from prison, but other states – mostly in the South – prohibit a non-trivial portion of their citizens from voting with a criminal record, period); 3.) The US expecting the citizen to do most of the legwork to be registered to vote, unlike other countries.

    Still, the graph here is only showing a US presidential election, which is a national high – midterm Congressional elections have far, far lower turnouts (2014 was the lowest turnout since WW2), and state and local elections are even worse. And presidential turnouts may be “consistent” (although a 9 point variation between 1996 and 2012 sounds huge to me), but they’re down significantly on turnouts in the 50s and 60s.

    Reply
  5. Fredric L. Rice1 year ago

    That’s because we don’t vote in the United States and most people don’t fall for the Oligarchy’s propaganda and rhetoric to the contrary. Your vote does not matter, only corporate money’s vote matters, and overwhelmingly Americans refuse to play pretend.

    When you vote you are guilty of the war crimes, atrocities, and treason that corporate-owned puppet politicians commit around the world and within the United States. If you vote you have blood on your hands, YOU are responsible for the atrocities and treason.

    That’s why most people don’t vote. If you vote you are part of the problem, you are legitimizing your own oppression and justifying the corporate Oligarchy’s excesses against you.

    Reply
    1. D7 months ago

      While looking for material for my college essay on voter turnout, I couldn’t help but notice this little gem. Fredric, I don’t know when you were given the mic to speak for all Americans, but let me assure you that your opinions on this subject are most certainly in the minority and rank in the top ten of the dumbest things I’ve read on the internet. While you are speaking out against the big bad oligarchy, take time to thank them for the computer you went out and purchased so that you can spread your BS. You are an example of why there is still a need for an electoral college in this country.

      Reply
      1. Anonymous6 months ago

        Haha, I’m in the same boat actually and I find it funny that these people still exist. I hope you get a good grade on your essay my man.

        Reply
      2. chris Christophj2 weeks ago

        Actually Frederick is right you apparently only gain your info from official propaganda and not on in the girls research

        Reply
    2. Robert Dunn3 months ago

      Voting is part of the problem? You couldn’t be more wrong. The problem is that NOT ENOUGH people vote. Besides that, there is not enough engagement in politics on the part of the American public. These factors have contributed to the oligarchy we have today and Sanders’ campaign is aiming to fix that by at least waking people up to the reality.

      Reply
      1. chris Christophj2 weeks ago

        If rule of law existed and free fair elections without the paid media things would be different. That will never happen as it would interfere with the oligarchy slave operation

        Reply
  6. Thomas R1 year ago

    This is kind of a historic pattern. I have a National Geographic from the 1960s with the US and Switzerland having some of the lowest voter participation. In a way the US might look less “bad” than I’d expect and in some respects about the same or better than Canada.

    Reply