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Introduction to Political Science

5.2 What Limits Voter Participation in the United States?

Introduction to Political Science5.2 What Limits Voter Participation in the United States?

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how individual characteristics can limit political participation.
  • Explain how institutional characteristics can limit political participation.
  • Articulate each characteristic and how it affects participation.

In the 2016 US presidential election, 100 million Americans didn’t vote. A Knight Foundation study found that nonvoters have less trust in the electoral system and consume less news and information compared to voters. Notably, among nonvoters, dislike of the candidates was the most commonly cited reason for not voting.21 While this landmark study of 12,000 nonvoters sheds light on the reasons why people don’t participate in the democratic process, this chapter will further discuss in detail why full voter participation remains elusive.

What individual-level characteristics affect voter turnout in the United States? University of Montreal Professor and Canada Research Chair in Electoral Democracy Ruth Dassonneville explains that few variables consistently affect different aspects of voting as much as age.22 The older voters are, the more likely they are to show up to the polls. The relationship is considered curvilinear, meaning younger voters are much less likely to vote; likelihood of voting increases steadily as voters hit middle age, followed by a “soft” decline in the oldest age categories.23 Why do older voters turn out at higher rates? Some studies suggest that as voters age, voting becomes more of a habit, and that people are more likely to coalesce around the idea of voting.24 Case Western Reserve University Professor Robert H. Binstock, a leading researcher on seniors’ voting behaviors, has several suggestions as to why age predicts voting. For one, the older a voter is, the more likely they are to pay attention to things such as having to register, which is a precursor to voting. In addition, Binstock notes that the length of residence in one’s home also predicts voting and that seniors are the most likely of all voters to have resided in a single place for longer periods of time.25 Other researchers have found correlations between higher levels of media consumption in older voters and a greater propensity to vote.26 In addition, people over the age of 65 tend to vote more because they better understand the relationship between governmental policies that affect them, such as Social Security, and their ability to influence policy makers through political participation.27 On a more basic level, older people usually have more time on their hands.28 As people retire and their children leave the house, they have more time to become politically active. However, as the graph in Figure 5.4 indicates, turnout across all groups has risen in the last two election cycles.

Show Me the Data

Lines on a graph show that, between 2000 and 2020, overall voter turnout in the United States has increased steadily as voters age.
Figure 5.4 While turnout among all groups has risen in recent US elections, older Americans still vote at the highest rates. (source: US Census data; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Income is another individual-level variable that helps explain voter turnout. University of Warwick Professor Christopher J. Anderson and Duke University Professor Pablo Beramendi have found that those earning below the median income are less likely to vote than people earning above the median income and that as income inequality increases, people with lower levels of income are decreasingly likely to vote.29 The founding executive director of progressive think tank Data for Progress, Sean McElwee, explains that those with lower incomes do not believe their vote influences political outcomes, while the wealthy do believe their vote counts and are therefore more likely to turn out to vote.30 Wealthier voters also tend to have greater access to the polls. They don’t face the same barriers to voting that many voters at lower income levels face, such as having to rely on public transportation or experiencing difficulty registering to vote.31 A recent study of the 2020 US election found that some of the reasons for lower participation among low-income voters were the inability to take time off of work, missing voter registration deadlines, and not being able to find their polling places.32 The same study also found large disparities between those making over $75,000 and those making less than $40,000 in terms of their likelihood of voting at all. Internationally, and on a more macro level, economic development will have an impact on participation rates “because economic hardship can result in voter apathy and lead people to withdraw from politics and focus on meeting their basic needs.” In addition, economic development affects education levels, which in turn affects voter participation.33

Show Me the Data

A tabular representation of the US eligible voter population shows percentage growth by race between the years 2000 and 2018. Among non-white voters, Hispanic voters are both the largest voting block and recorded the highest growth during the time period.
Figure 5.5 Most of the growth in the electorate since 2000 has come from Hispanic, Black, and Asian eligible voters. (source: Pew Research Center analysis of 2018 American Community Survey and 2000 decennial census. “The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the US Electorate”; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Race is another factor that influences voter turnout. In the United States, White people have historically voted at substantially higher rates than voters of Asian or Latina/Latino descent, with the gap ranging from 15 to 20 percentage points.34 Asian American turnout has never reached the 50 percent mark, but the 2020 election saw a 63 percent increase in Asian American and Pacific Islander voter participation in Georgia compared to 2016, and Joe Biden’s win in the state is partially credited to this seismic shift.35 Black turnout has historically been higher than that of other minority groups, and any history of low turnout among Black people can be attributed to voter suppression policies and local laws that were not officially reversed until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Since then, and notably since the 1980s, Black turnout has been steady. In 2012, Black turnout percentage reached an all-time high, surpassing White turnout in the presidential election that returned Barack Obama, the first Black president, to office for a second term.36 Research on Latina/Latino (Latinx) turnout has shown that the group is not a monolith and that several different factors contribute to any understanding of Latinx voter participation. For example, the longer a Latinx voter has lived in the country, the more likely they are to vote, and differences among Cuban American, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican voters diminish after controlling for socioeconomic factors.37 However, as illustrated in Figure 5.5, minority voters will only continue to grow in proportion to the population, and it is reasonable to think that their rates of voter participation will rise as well.

What about gender? In 1980, the numbers of eligible male and female voters who reported voting were roughly the same, around 62 percent. Since then, increasingly more eligible female voters have voted than men. By 2016, the gap had widened by 4 percentage points, with the total number of female voters exceeding the number of male voters in every election since 1964.38 Women turn out in higher numbers for a variety of reasons. Feminist movements have normalized female participation in politics, and the campaign platforms of Republicans in the 1980s—along with the rise of the Christian Right, which espoused traditional family values at the expense of policies such as equal pay and family leave—may have unintentionally mobilized women to vote in higher numebrs.39 Not only do women turn out at higher rates, but they also tend to exhibit voting preferences that differ from men’s. While men and women showed similar voting preferences in 1964, since 1976, the gap between their preferences has consistently widened.40 The polls leading up to the 2020 US election illustrated a “gender canyon,” with a projected 15 percent gender gap between men, the majority of whom supported the Republican candidate, and women, who supported the Democratic candidate41—although this gap narrowed in the actual election to just 7 percentage points, a notable change from the 13-point gap observed in 2016.42 Globally, gender as a factor in turnout depends on the country. The lowest rates of female participation in elections are found mainly in countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. Female participation is lowest in Pakistan, while women participate at higher rates compared to men in 21 of 58 countries included in an International IDEA study,43 notably including Belarus, New Zealand, Russia, and Trinidad and Tobago.44

Aside from demographic factors, other individual-level attitudes also affect who participates in politics. A 2006 Pew Research Center study found that individuals who agreed with the statements “I am interested in local politics,” “It is my duty as a citizen to always vote,” “This election matters more,” and “I feel guilty when I don’t vote” were all much more likely to be registered and regular voters than individuals who disagreed with those statements.45 Subsequent studies found that interest and duty drive political participation.46 As mentioned earlier in this chapter, political efficacy also affects turnout, and historically, declining levels of trust, interest, and efficacy have been shown to lower political participation.47 Multiple scholars also support the theory that voter fatigue—the idea that voters face too many elections and too many electoral decisions—depresses participation,48 and University of California Professor Arend Lijphart suggests that less frequent elections would boost participation.49

In addition to demographic and individual-level characteristics, institutional forces can affect political participation. Voter registration requirements are one of the biggest institutional limits on political participation. Unlike countries such as Japan, Australia, Belgium, Germany, and Sweden, which all have automatic voter registration50 whereby the government automatically registers citizens to vote, the United States relies on individuals and states to set up registration requirements and procedures. States that have adopted automatic voter registration (AVR)—in which the state automatically registers voters, usually through the Department of Motor Vehicles—have shown increases in the number of registered voters. As Figure 5.6 indicates, most voters in the United States register through the Department of Motor Vehicles. A 2019 study showed that AVR increased voter registration in seven states plus the District of Columbia, controlling for all other factors.51 Of the 80 million Americans who did not vote in the 2020 election, almost 30 percent cited being unregistered as the top reason they did not go to the polls.52

Show Me the Data

A bar graph shows the ways Americans registered to vote from 2014 to 2018. The largest number of people registered at a department of motor vehicles, while a very low number of people registered at a public assistance agency. Registering online or at a department of motor vehicles became more common between 2014 and 2018, and registering at or mailing a registration to a county or government registration office became less common.
Figure 5.6 According to US Census data, between 2014 and 2018 most voting-age American citizens registered to vote at a department of motor vehicles or through a county or government registration office. (source: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplements: November 2014, 2016, 2018; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Sarina Vij, writing for the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) Human Rights magazine, notes that minorities are disproportionately affected by institutional barriers such as voter ID laws and decreased access to polling places and voting materials.53 Voter ID laws require individuals to present an ID, most commonly a driver’s license or passport, in order to vote. Individuals who lack government-issued identification are more likely to be, among other demographics, non-White. Vij indicates that lack of access to polling stations, another institutional barrier to participation, also tends to significantly disadvantage poor and minority voters. Access to actual voting locations goes hand in hand with availability of voting materials; younger, less educated, and non-White voters often cannot find necessary information about what is on the ballot or where they should vote, and they often meet with language barriers as well.

Additional institutional restrictions on voting access have resulted in what some believe to be widespread voter suppression. A 2020 Harvard University study noted that restrictions on voter registration drives, new restrictions on early voting and voting by felons, voter roll purges, closure of polling places, restrictions on student voting, elimination of same-day voter registration, and unchecked gerrymandering (the manipulation of the boundaries of voting districts in order to favor one party over another) all contribute to lowered political participation.54 Historically, codified laws in the United States such as Jim Crow laws prohibited Black voters from the ballot box. These laws used literacy tests, poll taxes, and stringent residency requirements to make voting more difficult. Even more horrific, in some regions of the United States, Black voters faced the threat of lynchings: “Slave patrols, the Ku Klux Klan and less formally organized groups of whites used beatings, burnings and hangings to constantly remind blacks of their inferior status and to prevent the use of their newly acquired freedoms to work and vote.”55 Jim Crow laws remained in effect until 1965, when the passage of the Voting Rights Act formally outlawed racial discrimination in voting.

The Voting Rights Act reflects the power that political institutions can have both to act as counteragents to racism and to promote political participation. In 1966, Congress passed the 24th Amendment, which abolished poll taxes. The states ratified the amendment in 1964. In 1975, Congress added language to the original Voting Rights Act requiring localities to provide multilingual voter information, and it further expanded voting rights to protect Americans with disabilities in 1982.56 Globally, European Union (EU) countries such as Austria, Malta, Scotland, and Wales have made voting more accessible by lowering the voter age to 16. Other institutions that can affect people’s levels of political participation include religious groups and organizations. Denison University Professor Paul Djupe and Southern Illinois University Professor J. Tobin Grant found that religious institutions can encourage political participation by recruiting members to be part of the political process and highlighting their involvement as having political consequences.57

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