More than any country, the U.S. is held up as a global model of democracy. The reality, however, is that voter turnout in the U.S. — the linchpin of that democracy — ranks among the lowest in the developed world.
Just 54% of the voting age population exercised the right to cast a ballot in the last presidential election in 2012, placing the U.S. near the bottom (31st) in a ranking of 34 developed countries compiled by the Pew Research Center. And keep in mind, that was a presidential election, which typically has higher turnout that off-year national elections. Belgium and Australia topped the list with 87 and 81% voter turnout, while Brazil—at 80%—with a population size comparable to the U.S., perhaps offers the better comparison.
So is lower voter participation in the U.S. due to a lack of individual motivation, or something else? A look at the rules governing other democracies suggests that our voting system itself may be partly to blame.
Mandatory voting laws certainly appear to boost turnout in Australia , where citizens must provide a valid reason for why they didn't vote or risk being fined. Thirty-one other countries employ the same rule—although to be fair, only about a dozen actually enforce it.
Brazil takes a hard line, barring non-voters from various government services, such as getting a passport, landing certain civil jobs, and receiving public loans. Brazilians can restore their privileges only after voting in two straight elections.
This is another strategy that seems to work out well for countries with high voter participation rates, like France (71%) and Sweden (83%). Registering to vote is compulsory in most European countries , but in the U.S. where getting registered is voluntary, about a quarter of eligible voters fail to do so.
We’ve grown accustomed to our national elections being held on the first Tuesday of November, but countries with high voter turnout like Australia, Belgium, and Brazil schedule their election day on a weekend, so voters won’t be held back by work obligations. Seems reasonable enough.
In the U.S, there are sizeable groups who couldn’t vote even if they wanted to: minors, undocumented immigrants and other non-citizens, and people convicted of felonies (with few exceptions). Also, in recent years, a slew of states controlled by conservative legislatures have passed laws that make it more difficult for people to vote—especially people of color, students, the disabled, and the elderly.
The minimum voting age in the United States hasn’t always been 18. Prior to 1971’s ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, the voting age was 21. Could the legal voting age be lowered again?
A small but growing chorus of voices is calling for just that, and even seeing some success in changing local laws. In recent years, the cities of Takoma Park and Hyattsville in Maryland lowered the voting age to 16 for municipal elections. San Francisco voters will have an opportunity to do the same when they go to the polls this November. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) upped the ante last year, expressing support for lowering the national voting age to 16 or 17.
Advocates of a lower voting age offer myriad reasons , but they pretty much boil down to three things: Teens should have a say in determining laws that impact them, civic education would be encouraged at an earlier age, and—you guessed it—voter turnout would increase.
Proponents of lowering the voting age could also point to the fact that 17-year-olds can serve in the military with guardian permission, and minors as young as 14 can be sentenced as adults in criminal courts but can’t vote.
With immigration a major issue in this year’s presidential election, undocumented people have a lot riding on the outcome—but unless they are allowed to become citizens, they won’t have a say at the ballot box.
In 2014, there were estimated to be 11.4 million undocumented people in the U.S., or roughly 3.5% of the nation’s population. And despite the challenges inherent to being undocumented—the constant fear of deportation and inability to receive numerous government benefits, to name just a couple—they live in many ways like other Americans: they work for U.S. companies, send their kids to public schools, and pay taxes. In fact, the average tax rate for immigrants living in the country illegally is actually higher than the rate paid by America's top earners, according to a report from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy.
Roughly 1 of every 100 adult Americans are in prison or jail, and recent history provides ample evidence that a percentage that small can swing a major election.
The U.S. incarceration rate has increased by about 500% since 1980 (overall population growth in the same period only increased about 40%), according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee , leaving 1 out of every 13 black Americans disenfranchised due to a felony conviction.
Not every state denies prisoners the right to vote, but many do—and most offer felons no recourse to restore their rights.
Twenty-two states have passed voting restriction laws since 2010, mostly under the guise of stopping voter fraud. The laws, which impose barriers like strict voter ID requirements and reduced time periods for early voting, have been found to disproportionately impact people of color, the elderly, and the young.
In July, federal courts struck down several of these laws, including a North Carolina voter-ID law, on the grounds that they discriminate against black voters. But there are still 14 states that will employ voter restriction laws for the first time in a presidential election in 2016: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Turnout among Democratic Party voters was shown to drop by nearly 9% in states with strict voter-ID laws, compared to less than 4% of Republican voters, according to research conducted at University of California, San Diego.
National polls suggest that official policy platforms don’t always conform with public opinion, something that might change if everyone voted.
58% of Americans said they support the idea of replacing our current system with some form of federally-funded universal health care, in a recent Gallup poll.
One national opinion poll conducted this year found that 54% of Americans support stricter gun laws than those currently on the books. In addition, 59% polled in favor of banning the manufacture, sale and purchase of semi-automatic assault weapons as well as high-capacity ammunition magazines; and 92% favored mandatory background checks for gun buyers.
About 48 million people in the U.S. live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau , and according to polls, most Americans support giving workers a fair living wage to help people get out of that poverty.
About 74% of Americans support a minimum wage increase to $12.50 by the year 2020, and 53% are ready to hit $15, according to one recent poll commissioned by the National Employment Law Project. That’s nearly double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. Another poll conducted by Gallup in 2013 showed similar results, with 71% of Americans supporting a minimum wage increase.
65% of Americans polled last year by Gallup said they support a path to citizenship for undocumented people living in the U.S., while only 19% said they favor deportation as a solution.
About 74% of Americans agreed with the statement that “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” according to surveys conducted by Pew Research Center. Another poll showed that 64% of Americans were either worried a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about global warming, with the highest concern centered around polluted drinking water (61%) and the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs (56%).