U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout
About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, according to newly released Census Bureau figures – a slight uptick compared with 2012, but less than the record year of 2008 and well below turnout levels typical in most other developed democracies.
The bureau estimates that there were 245.5 million Americans ages 18 and older in November 2016, about 157.6 million of whom reported being registered to vote. (While political scientists typically define turnout as votes cast divided by the number of eligible voters, in practice turnout calculations usually are based on the estimated voting-age population, or VAP, since eligibility is affected by many hard-to-measure factors such as citizenship, imprisonment, residency rules and other legal barriers.)
Just over 137.5 million people told the census they voted last year, somewhat higher than the actual number of votes tallied (136.8 million, according to figures compiled by the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, though that figure includes more than 170,000 blank, spoiled or otherwise null ballots). That sort of overstatement has long been noted by researchers; the comparisons and charts in this analysis use the House Clerk’s figure.
The 55.7% VAP turnout in last year’s election puts the U.S. behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states. Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each of the 35 OECD member nations, the U.S. placed 28th.
The highest turnout rates among OECD nations were in Belgium (87.2%), Sweden (82.6%) and Denmark (80.3%). Turnout in last month’s Turkish constitutional referendum likely was in that range too, but we don’t have a current estimate for Turkey’s voting-age population. On the other hand, Switzerland consistently has the lowest turnout in the OECD: In the 2015 Swiss legislative elections, less than 39% of the voting-age population cast ballots.
The relatively high turnout rates in Belgium and Turkey may be due in part to the fact they are among the 24 nations around the world (and six in the OECD) with some form of compulsory voting, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or IDEA. (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. In Chile, for example, turnout plunged after the country moved from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012 and began automatically enrolling eligible citizens. Even though essentially all voting-age citizens were registered for Chile’s 2013 elections, turnout in the presidential race plunged to 42%, versus 87% in 2010 when the compulsory-voting law was still in place. (However, turnout on a VAP basis has been declining since the return of democracy in 1989.)
Chile’s situation points to yet another complicating factor when comparing turnout rates across countries: the distinction between who’s eligible to vote and who’s actually registered. In many 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 UK and Australia). As a result, turnout looks pretty similar regardless of whether you’re looking at voting-age population or registered voters. (One exception is South Korea, where reported voter registration for last week’s presidential election was higher than IDEA’s voting-age population estimate. Using registered voters as the base, turnout was 77.2%, the highest level in two decades.)
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 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, according to the new census report, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
As a consequence, turnout comparisons based only on registered voters may not be very meaningful. For instance, U.S. turnout last year was 86.8% of registered voters, fourth-highest among OECD countries (and highest among those without compulsory voting). But registered voters in the U.S. 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 noncitizens and ineligible felons from the voting-age population and adding eligible overseas voters. Using those calculations, U.S. turnout improves somewhat, to 59.3% of the 2016 voting-eligible population. However, McDonald doesn’t calculate comparable estimates 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 1976, voting-age turnout has remained within an 8.5-percentage-point range – from just under 50% in 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected, to just over 58% in 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House. However, turnout 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% in 2014. Greece, despite having a compulsory-voting law on the books (though not enforced), has seen turnout in parliamentary elections fall from 89% in 2000 to 62% in September 2015. And in Slovenia, after a burst of enthusiasm following the country’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 (when 85% of the voting-age population cast ballots), turnout fell rapidly – sinking to 54% in 2014, a drop of 31 percentage points in just over two decades of democracy.
In the UK, which is holding a snap election next month, turnout has bounced up and down since the late 1970s, peaking at 75.4% of the voting-age population in 1992 and bottoming out at 57.6% in 2001, when Tony Blair won a second term as prime minister. Since that low point, turnout has risen four elections in a row, including last year’s referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union. Nearly two-thirds of the voting-age population, and more than 72% of registered voters, cast ballots in the referendum, according to the UK’s Electoral Commission – the highest turnout rates since 1997 and 1992, respectively.
Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published May 6, 2015 and previously updated on Aug 2, 2016.
Drew DeSilver is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.