Voter turnout in the United States has long been low compared to other developed countries, raising worries over the health of the country’s democracy. Critics point to structural barriers in the voting system that disenfranchise minorities; other election experts point to persistent voter apathy. Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, debate has intensified over what should be done.
How does U.S. voter turnout compare with that in other democracies?
Turnout in the United States is below average among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of mostly high-income countries. Turnout in the 2020 U.S. national elections was 62 percent, three points below the OECD average of 65 percent. Some of the highest-turnout countries include Turkey, Sweden, and Belgium, at 78 percent or higher; Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Chile are among the lowest, at 51 percent or lower.
Election experts say high turnout can be explained by various factors. One is compulsory voting laws, such as those in Australia and Belgium. In Chile, for instance, voter turnout plunged after a shift from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012. Voting systems are another factor: countries with proportional representation, where parties win seats according to the proportion of votes they receive, tend to have higher turnout [PDF] than those with winner-take-all systems, such as in the United States, in which the majority party in a given electoral district wins all the seats.
Some analysts argue that socioeconomic status also matters. In general, wealthy areas have higher turnout, a trend that holds in the United States. Elections perceived as more competitive and having higher stakes also drive turnout: in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the top five states with the highest turnout also saw some of the closest competition.
Why is turnout low in the United States?
Low turnout has been a feature of U.S. politics for the past century, with presidential elections consistently bringing out between 50 and 65 percent. Turnout in midterm elections is even lower. For much of that time, Jim Crow–era voting requirements disenfranchised many Black Americans. The 1965 Voting Rights Act banned this type of discrimination, but advocates say many factors continue to dampen turnout.
Low registration rates. Unlike in most other countries, registration in the United States is left up to individual voters. Critics say registration is often confusing and a systemic barrier that disproportionately hinders low-income, Black, and naturalized citizens. (Experts differ on the importance of this; some argue that registration has become much easier since the 1990s without improving turnout rates.) In 2020, less than three-quarters of all eligible voters were registered, in comparison to Australia and Germany, where registration rates are higher than 90 percent. Meanwhile, the purging of registered voter lists, meant to clear duplicates and deceased people, has grown increasingly contentious.
Voter ID requirements. Many voters are turned away at the polls for not meeting strict ID requirements. Some local election authorities, which in the United States are usually partisan positions, have argued that such requirements are necessary to combat voter fraud. Critics say there is little evidence of voter fraud and that these requirements largely serve to prevent members of minority groups from voting.
Polling-place accessibility. An increasing number of polling places have been closed in favor of centralized voting centers. Officials say this lowers costs, but voting rights advocates say it leads to longer travel and wait times and disproportionately hinders communities of color. Additionally, elections are held on weekdays, unlike in most OECD countries, and some states have cut back on early voting, further constraining voters.
Voter apathy. Some nonvoters are simply uninterested or unwilling. Researchers have found [PDF] that compared to frequent voters, those who rarely or never vote tend to distrust the electoral system and are less likely to be interested in politics. This is especially true among young people (aged eighteen to twenty-four), who typically have the lowest turnout rates.
What has been done about it?
There is a tug-of-war between policies to expand voting access and to further tighten it. The 1965 law had required states with a track record of discrimination to get federal approval before enacting new election procedures, but that provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. States including Alabama, Florida, and Texas responded with new measures to close down polling places, shorten early voting periods, and toughen ID requirements. Since 2021, eighteen states have passed laws increasing voting requirements.
Elsewhere, states such as Arizona, Connecticut, New York, and Oregon have enacted laws to expand voter access, with likely more to come. Measures include automatic voter registration, online and same-day registration, and expanded mail-in and no-excuse absentee ballot options.
What’s the outlook for the 2022 midterms?
In the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in the 2020 election, some policymakers are seeking to head off problems during the 2022 vote. One proposal, the Freedom to Vote Act (FVA), seeks to counteract what critics allege is local voter suppression by setting national standards. The House of Representatives passed the FVA last year, but it is unlikely to move forward in the Senate.
The 2020 election saw the highest voter turnout in more than a century. While turnout is usually lower in the midterms, analysts caution that this year’s are especially unpredictable given the Supreme Court’s landmark abortion ruling. Some experts say the upward trend could continue despite changing voting laws. “Politics has become an increasingly large part of the American cultural dynamic,” says CFR’s Chris Tuttle. “A lot more people are politically tuned in than in the past.”
Lyon Nishizawa is an editorial intern at CFR.