Voting turnout in different countries
March 10, 2011 3:59 PM   Subscribe

“A citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy but won't cross the street to vote in a national election” Why is there an apparent apathy of political participation in America, and to extend it a bit, how come voting turn-out is higher in some countries in others even if the countries in comparison are both recognized liberal democracies?
posted by espada0 to Law & Government (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To reach for some low-hanging fruit: in many other liberal democracies, election day is a holiday. See this interesting page on potential election reforms, including election day holidays, that would help increase voter turnout in the US.
posted by librarylis at 4:07 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another low-hanging fruit item:

Some countries make voting mandatory. Even if they don't enforce it or punish non-voting, mandatory voting legislation still increases the amount of voting that happens. Weird but true.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:14 PM on March 10, 2011

What do we know about factors affecting voter turnout? is a downloadable PDF of a presentation on this question from Andrew Ellis of International IDEA.

Here are some quotes:
[In terms of] Election mechanics,
Turnout goes up with...
• Easy access to polling stations
• Facilities for the disabled
• Mobile ballot boxes - but integrity issues!
• Absentee voting - but both cost and integrity issues!
• Rest day voting?

[In terms of] Political environment,
Turnout is higher in...
• An election that is close overall
• A close election in an individual district
Turnout is lower in...
• An election where the political system is fragmented

[In terms of] Design of Institutions and Electoral Systems
Turnout goes up linked to...
• Compulsory voting - but only if enforced
• Electoral system choice - PR increases participation (average about 8%)
• Making electoral districts competitive - boundary delimitation matters
• Election results that make a difference to what government does and how effectively!

Who participates?
• Once their right to vote is well established, more women than men vote
• Most of the people who engage in other political activity are voters as well
• In some countries, more interest in politics but turnout going down! Explanation - less automatic party loyalty

[Does it help to let people vote at 18? Slide suggests no.]

[Slide suggests it is very important to get people to vote in their 20s or else they will never become voters, and voter education to encourage over-30s to vote may be useless.]
Wikipedia on voter turnout has a quick review of some political science findings on voter turnout, with bibliographic references if you're inclined to read up.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:16 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sheer number of elections in the United States -- and in certain states in particular -- is mind-boggling. In the last election, I voted for school board members, county judges, auditors, water authority committee members, bond measures, changes to the city charter, and a host of California propositions.

The first sentence of Chapter One of Get Out The Vote, which is written by Yale faculty members Donald Green and Alan Gerber is the following: "The United States has the busiest election calendar on earth." Some people just get a bit burned out.
posted by ferdydurke at 4:18 PM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is a huge questions with a million different answers. Short answer is different cultural, political and logistical factors make voting higher in different places.

Logistically, as mentioned above, voting can be set on holidays or weekends. ID requirements and enrollment can be easier or harder in other countries. Likewise time spent at booths can be lower. I have read stories of people in the states waiting hours to cast their votes - this would never happen in Australia, for example (mootly, because voting is compulsory here). Other countries also have independent electoral commissions to run and oversee voting, which - frankly - are much better and facilitate voting in a better way than their US equivalents.

Culturally, for example, comparatively poorer and less educated people vote less. The US has a lot of poor and disenfranchised. I've also seen some research that implies greater inequality within a country can effect voter turn out, though I'm personally not sure if the research is solid enough to suggest that. Another cultural factor is that different cultures can have different models and ideals of what civic engagement looks like. Japan, for example, has extremely high turnout (circa 80%) for a country with non-compulsory voting, especially one where the same party has been in power for very long stretches. Some people - I don't necessarily subscribe to this - argue that it's not only because of a Japanese conception of civic duty, but also the result of a culture where duty is highly prioritised along with conformity. The US is far more concerned with civil liberties and freedom from the state moreso than many other democracies.

Politically, parties and corporate interests in the US have done everything in their power to make it harder for people to vote for decades- especially the poor, the young, black people etc. IMHO the endemic corruption and grave disconnect between voting and outcomes has engendered a lot of cynicism in US voters. The state is viewed as an unwelcome imposition responsible for more pain than joy. Voters feel powerless and impotent (rightly so) in the face of profiteering and demagogical interests that clearly take precedence over citizen needs and desires. In my opinion.

So yeah, lots of reasons.
posted by smoke at 4:22 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

most americans won't cross the ocean to fight for democracy. most americans who do cross the ocean to fight aren't doing so for democracy. there's apathy because it's a huge country filled with people and the moves to change are tiny. we're a fast food, instant watch culture and elections don't give that sort pay off.
posted by nadawi at 4:24 PM on March 10, 2011

"A citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy but won't cross the street to vote in a national election"

I would add that in my experience, most veterans -- the ones willing to cross an ocean to fight for democracy -- do vote. We always talk about voting in my philosophy class and the veterans and I berate the non-voters. The census says:

"Seventy-one percent of veterans cast a ballot, compared with 63 percent of nonveterans."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:09 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm fairly certain that Australia is a 'recognised western liberal democracy'.

We have compulsory voting. if you don't show up to vote, you get a fine in the mail, like a traffic fine. So most people show up.

I know that a lot of Americans are appalled at the concept. But there are a lot of benefits. Less shamless targeting of voter blocs, less capture. Less bitching too, because everyone really did vote. We get the government that most eligble voters agreed upon. Of course, that doesn't mean we get a good government.

Note the obligation is to show up, not to provide a valid vote. You can 'donkey vote', i.e., provide a vote that cannot be counted, without penalty. I've never done this, although I have been tempted. I'd like to think that I would actually draw an actual picture of a donkey on my vote, if I did.

We also have limits on the campagin period - 6 weeks. I think that saves people from being burned out by all the politics and issue baiting.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:35 PM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've read the studies on US voting that show that poorer and/or less-educated people are less likely to vote than more prosperous and/or better-educated people. I think one major problem is that our schools don't put much emphasis on preparing people for informed participation in the democratic process, and this is particularly true of the schools that educate predominantly low-income kids. If you drop out of high school or never go beyond high school you are likely to lack the knowledge necessary for evaluating the issues. You're also more likely to feel powerless.

I like the Australian system.
posted by mareli at 5:45 PM on March 10, 2011

There's always the issue that in a 2-party system, you're voting for either a turd sandwich or a giant douche.

Speaking of Australia again, that's not exactly the case, because we have a preferential system, not a first-across-the-line system.

What this means is that even if the Prime Minister is pretty much guaranteed to be from one of the 2 major parties, by voting for your preferred minor party first (eg the Greens, Democrats, Family First, One Nation, whatever) this gives the minor party a bit of clout, because the major parties want to attract their preferences to boost their 2-party-preferred vote, meaning that the major parties have to court the minor parties & their voters, and make policies that ensure that they'll receive preferences, eg from the Greens voters.

In the most recent federal election, the result ended even more powerfully in the minor parties' lap, because neither of the two major parties ended with a clear majority, so they had to woo the other parties for support, just to form government.

TL;DR version - in countries with preferential systems, people can vote for their relatively niche minor party, and still have that vote count somewhat.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:50 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

More education about who the hell the candidates are and straight talk about what they stand for would do a lot, I think.

I go to almost every election (a promise I made to myself when I was sixteen), but nine times out of ten, when I get into the voting booth, for some of the lower-level races I haven't heard the first thing about any of the candidates. Most of the time, that's the first time I've even heard their names. But one year -- I don't know who did it, but some voting board or outreach program or something actually mailed every registered voter in New York city a little booklet that they'd prepared, with a page devoted to each and every candidate in the elections, for each race. This organization had submitted all the candidates the same form, asking them for basics on their bio, their background, their beliefs, their campaign promises, their web site, and in the case of the people who had been in office, their voting record.

It was invaluable. It was an impartial, brief, introduction to everyone, and it was mailed early enough to give me time to think about things. It also felt more impartial than the campaign ads -- which all smelled like bullshit PR spin from a mile off -- and so I actually trusted it. And I felt like a truly informed voter for the first time in a long time.

I suspect that that's what keeps a lot of people away -- feeling like they don't know enough about the candidates to make an informed choice, so why bother? People don't like doing things that make them feel dumb, and standing in a voting booth, realizing that they're asking you to choose between three people and you don't know anything about any of them, makes you feel awfully dumb.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 PM on March 10, 2011

some voting board or outreach program or something actually mailed every registered voter in New York city a little booklet that they'd prepared, with a page devoted to each and every candidate in the elections, for each race

The League of Women Voters does something like this in places where they're organized enough. It's a good organization to support if you're looking for a way to get involved.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:37 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Short answer: because we're a one-party state.
posted by Philemon at 8:55 PM on March 10, 2011

Registering to vote = endless, constant, pointless political junk mail.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 9:18 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I usually do vote, but didn't make it to my polling place for Tuesday's election. I was exhausted from work and I slept in, and then had to go back to work. By the time I got out, the polls were closed.
posted by mirepoix at 11:36 PM on March 10, 2011

There's a law that says workplaces have to offer employees time off if they need to go vote, but I've never put this to the test. Absences are frowned upon in today's work environment.
posted by mirepoix at 11:38 PM on March 10, 2011

Response by poster: I understand the point about education as an influencing factor, but recent cases have shown the contrary. One example that comes to mind is the democratic elections in South Sudan, a Third-World country with a less than desirable literacy rate and standard of living, yet there was an overwhelming participation percentage, over 90% I believe. So why is this the case? I would rule out geography, despite the States being much larger than Sudan and better equipped in terms of infrastructure, the Sudanese population were willing to travel miles by foot in order to reach a voting booth. What is it exactly that causes these exceptional cases?
posted by espada0 at 1:56 AM on March 11, 2011

Are kidding me? Why is Sudan different? Firstly, I think you're actually talking about the referendum held for independence in southern Sudan in January (98% turn out), not the elections last year, but most of the following holds true for both:

This was the first even halfway proper elections most Sudanese have had in their lifetimes. It is the direct result of tremendous campaigning and sacrifice from its people.

Sudan was a colonial construction - the country itself does not reflect ethno-cultural geographies.The southern Sudanese have been victims of genocide for over a decade. This is the most significant chance for self-determination they will probably ever get.

The results of the referendum this year will mean independence for southern Sudanese.

Comparing this to general elections - let alone elections in the United States is silly. You say it yourself: these cases are exceptional. They are unique. You can't compare elections in Sudan with elections in Cypress with elections in Timor with elections in Australia.

Unique political, cultural and historical factors combine to produce unique situations. Whilst there are general factors that influence turn-out rates to a degree, every country, population and election is different and big differences in turnout rely on big difference in situation.
posted by smoke at 4:13 AM on March 11, 2011

I understand the point about education as an influencing factor, but recent cases have shown the contrary. One example that comes to mind is the democratic elections in South Sudan, a Third-World country with a less than desirable literacy rate and standard of living, yet there was an overwhelming participation percentage, over 90% I believe. So why is this the case?

You're comparing apples and oranges:

1. I was speaking about places which already had an open democracy, and talking about people being educated about the candidates themselves as opposed to "education in general."

2. Sudan did not have open elections prior to that point, and the one and only question they were voting on was, in essence, "do you want out of this buillshit, yes or no?"

I was talking more about places where free and open elections are already a given, but people don't know much about the candidates themselves before they get to the voting booth.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:47 AM on March 11, 2011

Caging, gerrymandering, and a two-party system all hurt voter turn out. Its not all just apathy and laziness. I'll also toss in the extreme lack of days off in American society. We don't get 4-8 weeks of vacation, 2 weeks of personal days, etc like most Western democracies do. I really do believe people are afraid of missing work. Oh, and voting is inconveniently set for Tuesdays instead of the weekend.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:48 AM on March 11, 2011

I think the "American citizen" in your quote generally takes part in fighting for democracy abroad and voting at home. I have rarely heard of someone who does one and not the other.

The question about voter turnout obviously is valid and I would hazard a guess that it has to do with the basic feeling of community and the connections that are built between neighbors. I have seen questions posted here as well as problems see elsewhere that could be easily resolved by having a strong sense of community with the people in your neighborhood. To me it is incomprehensible that one doesn't know their neighbors. Granted I have lived in cities all my life but I have known neighbors when I have lived in apartments and when I have owned homes. That's not to say that I get along with all of them or am best friends or anything like that but it is just the primitive tribal sense of safety in numbers rather than being the lone wolf with the world against you.

I get the sense that there is a larger movement of individuality in the nation especially in the suburbs where neighbors are further apart which is odd and unnatural. Even farmers in the older days stayed connected with the neighbors in the next 1/4 section. There also is a disconnect in many minority groups who are taken advantage by the people who hold the power. But a bigger factor seems to be the "bread and circus" ploy of vast offerings of home entertainment options like cable tv, televised sports, computers, games, etc. that make people overly comfortable at home. People get fulfillment without having to participate in a community.

Maybe the option is that our forms of government participation needs to adapt to this fact. A media-based government with participation and voting handled remotely may gain greater interest.
posted by JJ86 at 7:30 AM on March 11, 2011

I'd recommend that you look at the work of Curtis Gans at American University. People frequently disagree with him but he makes - and backs up with evidence - the argument that making election day a holiday will not increase turnout in any meaningful way.

Similarly, while most people rail about how election day is not a holiday, early and absentee voting make it possible for most Americans to cast ballots at their leisure.

Reading your anecdote about Sudan, I was wondering what the employment rate in the country is. At the same time, in many states, Americans are given time off from work to vote by law.

Some are beginning to say that this country may be too democratic - I know that sounds crazy but one example is elections for attorneys general. Several states allow the governor to simply appoint an attorney general, others require an AG election. Ditto lieutenant governor, tax collector, county coroner, dog catcher, and so on. It's hard to find good information on a handful of candidates, but when you send someone into a voting booth and the ballot is pages long, it can be overwhelming.

Voter registration - some states (NY) require that you register to vote at least 30 days before an election. Others allow you to register on election day and one (ND) does not require voter registration at all. Most countries affirmatively register you to vote.

Voter ID - In some states, you must show a photo ID to vote. Most countries give you a free photo ID.
posted by kat518 at 7:36 AM on March 11, 2011

Regarding the U.S., in what I realize is a BIG FAT GENERALIZATION (BFG):

On one hand, there are a lot of people who genuinely don't believe that one candidate is better than the other. So they don't get out and vote.

On the other hand, I think the fact that we HAVE democracy the way we do ensures that we have good candidates, which is a good enough reason why we fight for democracy. That is, having democracy ensures that no "evil dictator" candidates (the term I will use for the rest of this comment, even though it's a BFG) are going to make it through the primaries. So, just the fact that we HAVE democracy is a good thing. It ensures better candidates. We have low voter turnout because we're lazy (or because even our "good" candidates are still slimy politicians), but that doesn't mean that we don't want democracy.

And that's why we'll cross the ocean to fight for democracy, even if we won't cross the street to vote. We feel that democracy is still so much better than the alternatives that it doesn't even matter that much if we vote. We still end up with some American Politician and we'll still have our American Problems, but damn is it better than having an evil dictator.
posted by iguanapolitico at 10:34 AM on March 11, 2011

To add to the other good responses here-- we're bought off by our comforts. For too many people, their lives aren't appreciably different (at least in ways that they recognize) because of anything they did on election day.
posted by Rykey at 3:31 PM on March 11, 2011

Response by poster: Good point about Sudan, excuse my misinformation. You mentioned that there are general factors that influence voting turnout, for the sake of comparative politics, what would you suggest those factors may be? Although it reflects reality much better, I find that saying every country has a unique mixture of differing circumstances that lead to unique patterns of voting turnout much too convenient and relativistic as an answer. Perhaps then, the above can be used to reverse the question: what makes for similar voting turnout patterns when comparing two countries that have contrasting socio-economic and political climates?
posted by espada0 at 3:37 PM on March 11, 2011

For a well-researched take that is likely to be different from most of what you get here, look up libertarian law professor Ilya Somin's work on rational ignorance. Somin is a member of the Volokh Conspiracy, and you can find much of his writing there.


Why Political Ignorance is Rational

It is tempting to conclude that voters must be lazy or stupid. But even a smart and hardworking person can rationally decide not to pay much attention to political information. No matter how well-informed a citizen is, one vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election; about one chance in 100 million in the case of a presidential race. As a result, even a citizen who cares a great deal about public policy has little incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice. Becoming a well-informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational.

Also, see this page ("Why People Do Not Vote") from the book, "American Government and Politics Today."

- aj
posted by Alaska Jack at 5:36 PM on March 11, 2011

espada0, they're the factors that LobsterMitten mentions in their excellent comment near the top. Without tooting my own horn too much, I also touched on this in my answer.

But yes, equivocal and relativism is the order of the day. These are influencing factors, not determining factors. No one in polsci that I've read has found a way to ascertain those, if such things exist.
posted by smoke at 10:38 PM on March 11, 2011

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