The percentage of eligible voters who do vote in US Presidential elections from 1960-2004 has averaged 55% but has decreased almost every election year (but is on the increase since a low of 49.1% in 1996).
Only Switzerland and Poland have lower percentages of voter turnouts than the US. Interestingly, Poland has had only two elections since 1960… I’m not surprised people jump at the chance to express their political opinion once every 20 years! Many countries even “make voting mandatory”:http://www.idea.int/vt/compulsory_voting.cfm, people can be fined, punished or even go to jail for not voting. But even that doesn’t help them achieve 100% voter turnout. Australia has mandatory voting and non-voters risk a fine of between US$275 and US$2,750 – Australia essentially pays people to vote, but only 95% of eligible voters actually voted. Among those countries where voting is voluntary, Malta (94%), Austria (92%), Italy (90%), Iceland (89%) and New Zealand (88%) make up the top five in “voter turnout percentages”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout.
Those who complain about a low US voter turnout cite the percentage and deem it “bad” as if a low percentage means the system isn’t working. People who want a higher percentage imply that a higher percentage of voters would be better than fewer. By this logic, a 100% turnout in a population of 10 people would be preferable to only 10% voter turnout in a population of 1,000. Obviously, it’s not the percentage of people who vote that determines a good outcome, it’s the absolute number of people who vote that determines a good outcome.
Comparing total voters, the top five countries with voter turnout in their most-recent elections were Malta with 377,767 voters, Austria with 7 million voters, Italy with 52 million voters, Iceland with 268,718 voters and New Zealand with 3.6 million voters. If 52 million voters in Italy, 7 million in Austria and only 300,000 people are deemed capable of making a valid choice in elections in those countries, why does the US need more voters then them? We trust a handful of people to make big decisions in our corporations that affect everyone’s finances, we trust 100 senators to make good decisions in Congress that affect how we live, we trust a few people to make decisions in running our schools, we trust a handful of people in the FDA to make proper decisions for food and drug products that are sold, but we don’t believe 122 million people is enough people to make a valid choice between two Presidential candidates?
In 1960, the total number of eligible voters in the US was 109 million and 63% of them voted. That’s 68 million votes. If someone in 1960 suggested that the turnout was too low, which I’m sure someone did, they’d have been ecstatic with all 109 million voters voting. So 109 million people voting would be enough people voting to ensure a good democratic system. Today we have more than that voting, so we should be able to pick a President. If that’s still not good enough, the US population continues to grow and the number of voters has always been increasing, so eventually we’ll hit the magic number of required voters, but will people still complain about a low voter turnout? Probably.
Is the problem with low turnout a sign that voters are disenfranchised? Possibly, but statistically, as long as voters are a representative sample of the population, it doesn’t matter. Are US voters a representative sample of the population? There’s no way to know for sure, but if you compare the national voter turnout to each state’s turnout and find that they are close, it’s reasonable to conclude that the voters are a representative sample. In the 2000 election, “they are comparable”:http://www.eac.gov/clearinghouse/docs/voter-registration-and-turnout-2000.pdf/attachment_download/file. The lowest turnout was 43.1% (Texas) and the highest was 66.4% (Alaska) and the median voter turnout is 53%, again very close to the 51.3% national turnout in 2000. You could go even further into counties, but I suspect you’ll find the same percentages.
Shouldn’t we still strive for 100% voter turnout? Wouldn’t that make for a more perfect democracy? Not necessarily. The founding fathers of our country didn’t want a perfect democracy, so they created the Electoral College. But that aside, in a democracy, voters are free to voice their opinion, but they are also free to not have an opinion. By not requiring people to vote, we have a more perfect democracy than we would by restricting choice, i.e., removing the option not to vote. But even if the US had the impossible 100% voter turnout, there would be 240 million votes cast. Would 240 million people make a different decision than the decision that 122 million people made? Not likely. In fact, trying to reach 100% could be worse. The great thing about voluntary voting is that voters decide for themselves whether or not they should vote. The people who don’t vote don’t vote because they don’t care to vote, they know they aren’t as informed as they should be to make a decision or they don’t care enough about the outcome. Do we really want these people to vote just so we can claim a higher percentage? I don’t think so. The people who voluntarily vote are the best people to vote.
We should be happy that the other 45% aren’t voting and even better, that the majority of eligible voters want to vote. If the turnout percentage rises, we should hope that those new voters are more informed than the existing voters. If we blindly encourage their votes, we are encouraging a bad decision.
Data source for voter turnout: “http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html”:http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html