Explain the low turnout in U.S. elections.
“Miller light and bud lighteither way you end up with a mighty weak beer!” This is how Jim Hightower (a Texan populist speaker) described the choices that the U.S. electorate had in the 2000 elections. This insinuates that there is a clear lack of distinction between the parties. Along with numerous others, this is one of the reasons why the turnout is so low in the U.S. elections. In trying to explain the low figures at the U.S. elections, analysts have called American voters apathetic to indifferent to downright lazy. I disagree that the 50% (in recent elections) of voters that fail to turnout to vote are lazy and that they have just reason not too. I will also show that the problem lies within the system itself in that the institutional arrangements, electoral and governmental, do not create an environment that is conducive to mass participation. I will address these main issues and several others that have an effect on voter participation. In doing so I will compare America to other established democracies.
Some registration laws in the past had clearly been designed to abstain certain races and types of people from registering, these restricted rather than assisted voter turnout. In the South they made provisions to stop African-Americans voting and the North implemented obstacles such as the poll tax and literacy tests. These were blatant attempts to stop people who were not of the typical voter, an educated white male landowner from casting a ballot. Typically in the South turnout historically tends to be lower than that of the North. An example of this is the contest between Kennedy and Nixon when only 40% of the south turned out to vote compared with 70% of the rest of the nation. These southern states tend to be the ones who were part of the old Confederacy. They still seem to have similar political ideologies, as in the most recent election George W. Bush took all these states in defeating Al Gore. It seems that the stigma connected to the civil war that ended over 130 years ago still seems to loom over American politics. However due to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, procedures for registration have become much more user friendly in allowing a much wider scope of American citizens to register. Because of this Act I am going to concentrate on the more recent elections and explanations for the low turnout.
The lack of substantive difference between the two major parties in the U.S. seems to be a consistent factor why citizens are not going to the polls. People essentially go to vote to hopefully gain a voice in government and to gain that voice they do not want to waste their one vote on a losing candidate from a minor party. Therefore, on election day American citizens have a choice between two central parties and if they want to “gain a voice” they have to pick either one or the other, even if it is a different side of the same coin. This is a reason why other nations get a better turnout; in contrast to the U.S. they tend to have a greater choice of parties that have a legitimate chance of gaining seats in the political body. Citizens from these nations feel that they can vote for a party that better represents their ideological preferences and thus improve their chances of getting a more representative voice in their government. In the U.S. if a citizens ideological preferences lie with neither of the two parties they must either, find the one that lies closest to their preferences or decide to keep from voting altogether.
In the current system parties have “safe seats” where by that state has a far greater number of democrats than republicans or vice versa. So why are people going to bother voting when they are greatly out numbered? They don’t, so political parties usually make very little effort where they stand little chance of winning. This identifying, or lack of identifying, with parties seems to be a factor of whether citizens vote or not. Those who do have a political identity turnout in greater numbers to vote than those whom consider them selves independent or with little or no allegiance to a party. Those citizens who consider themselves to have a political identity have decreased in the last two or three decades, thus increasing voters with little or no allegiance who tend not to vote as much.
Voting in the U.S. is a two-step process; potential voters first have to put his or her name on the list of registered voters before they are eligible to cast a ballot. This is dissimilar to many other industrialized democracies where it is either; compulsory to register, as is the case in New Zealand where those who fail to register get fined, or as is the case in most of Europe, where by citizens are automatically registered at voting age. Most of these nations have had consistently better turnouts than the U.S. In South Korea’s 1997 presidential election there was a turnout of 92%. Their government plays an active role in registering voters. Closer to home, Canada’s government play a proactive role in registering voters, in doing so they consistently have more than a 60% turnout.
In all but seven states of the U.S., registration has to occur before the thirty day “closing date” after which citizens are no longer allowed to register thus excluding them from voting (Massachusetts is twenty days). These seven states ranked among the top fifteen in the 1996 for voting age population turnout. In six of the seven states that don’t have a closing date (Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming) voters can turn up on election day, register and then cast their vote. The closest state that comes to automatic registration is North Dakota, as citizens do not have to register at all. Voters can just turn up on election day and cast their vote. Since 1980 these states have, on average, had a turnout 10 points higher than that of those with long closing dates. As presidential elections tend to increase in intensity and publicity in the last thirty days or so, they are restricting potential voters, by having long “closing dates”, from getting to the voting booth. In this period of intense campaigning when a majority of people start to take more notice of the parties they might decide which way to vote, however they can’t because of this restriction on registration. This is what causes a reductive effect on voter turnout.
In 1995 the U.S. implemented the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) which is more commonly known as the “motor voter”. This is to allow citizens to register to vote at driver licence bureaus, at other public agencies and by post. Since its enforcement the number of citizens that have been registered to vote has increased, yet it appears that those registering this way are still not voting. However this still does not help those that are least likely to register, the young and those of lower socio-economic status. What ever seemed to stand between the newly registered citizen and the voting booth appears to still be in force. Also many who did register this way said that they had forgot that they were registered because the process was so simple.
Typically in America election day is held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In comparing to other nations that typically have a higher turnout than the U.S. you can see that those nations hold their election day on the weekend (French hold theirs on a Sunday) or a national holiday (e.g. South Korea). Because America’s is held on a workday many people cannot find the time in their hectic schedule to get to the polling station. This is especially the case of the poorer citizens where they are working in two minimum wage jobs to earn a decent living.
It seems that there is no one factor that causes these low figures, rather it is an accumulative number of reasons, the main ones stemming from the system itself. The fact the public have to go over so many hurdles to get to the voting booth seems to deject many potential voters from casting a ballot. The main ones being, voluntary registration and having to vote on a working day, which at times is during limited hours when cues tend to be very long. However when they do get to the polling station the electorate, strictly speaking, only have a choice of either of the two major parties. Should neither of these parties hold any similar political ideologies then why should they vote at all? If the U.S. adopted a more “Proportional Representation” political system this would engage more of the publics ideological values. Experts believe that this would increase turnout by 10%-15%.
Should the American system allow a third party to develop instead of suppressing efforts of minor parties they would get a wider participation and greater turnout. Such was the case in 1992 when turnout increased from 50% in 1988 to over 55% when Ross Perot was running along side Clinton and Bush. It seems that this third party created more interest for the electorates and kept them more engaged, this had the effect of more people going to the polls.
To many citizens the cost of voting greatly outweighs the benefits they are likely to receive from doing so. As political parties tend not to aim their manifestos at those in lower socio-economic status, why are they going to benefit by putting that party into power? Does it matter that they are not voting? Is it not better that citizens who are educated to a higher standard are deciding what is best for the country? If it is then the legitimacy of America as a democracy is questionable.
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Flanigan, William H / Zingale, Nancy H. Political behaviour of the American electorate, ninth edition. Boston, Mass Allyn and B, 1975.
Mckay, David. American politics and society. Blackwell publishers, UK, 2001.
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