Published on January 7, 2008
The Paradox of Voting in America: The Paradox of Voting in America Americans believe voting is important. They see it as: a civic duty; key to maintaining popular control of government; the very essence of democracy. Slide2: At the same time, Americans tend not to vote. Between 70 and 75 percent of the voting-age population is registered to vote; About 50 percent vote in Presidential elections; About 33 percent vote in midterm elections; Even fewer vote in off-year, special, and primary elections. Slide3: Voter turnout levels in other democracies such as South Africa, Denmark, Israel, Germany, Mexico, Britain, Russia, France and Canada range from 15 to 35 percent higher than turnout in American presidential elections. In Australia, over 90 percent of the voting-age population participates in national elections. What about American culture, society, and politics explain Americans’ comparative unwillingness to vote? Voting: A Cost-Benefit Analysis: Voting: A Cost-Benefit Analysis Principle of Politics #1: All political activity is goal-oriented and purposive. Some political scientists argue that it is not “rational” for Americans to vote because: The “costs” of voting in America are comparatively high. The “benefits” of voting in America are comparatively low. Slide5: There is a certain bureaucracy to American elections that increase the costs of voting. Voter registration rules often require voters to register often well in advance of elections. Many states have laws that “purge” nonvoters from the registration rolls. Slide6: The costs of voting in America are also high because of the frequency of American elections. Two-year election cycles are nearly half the election cycles of similar democracies. Americans’ rare use of primary elections doubles the frequency with which Americans are asked to vote. Slide7: Finally, in other countries, political parties play important roles in mobilizing voters and thus decrease the costs of voter turnout. Whereas in the 19th century American parties performed this role, the decline of American party organizations in the 20th century made American parties ill-equipped to perform this mobilization role. Slide8: If the costs of voting are high in America, many would-be voters perceive the benefits of voting to be low. Americans often believe that one vote cannot make a difference. Many Americans believe that there it does not matter which party controls the government. Slide9: There are structural features of the American electoral system that undermine the impact of individual votes. America’s single-member plurality (SMP) electoral system tends to dilute the impact of individual votes in specific geographic areas, particularly when compared to proportional representation (PR) electoral systems. The electoral college system of selecting the President also decreases the potential impact of individual votes on electoral outcomes. Slide10: With the costs of voting being comparatively high in the United States, it is little wonder that America’s voting age population votes less than citizens of other countries that through strong parties and eased voting bureaucracies subsidize voting behavior. And, with the benefits of voting being comparatively low in the United States, it is also not a surprise that countries that have more parties and thus greater choice for voters see higher turnout.