U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries
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.
Drew DeSilver is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.