Political participation is defined as action that expresses an individual’s political will, and self-government is when the people of a given country are the ones who grant the power to govern that country, through either direct or indirect representation. Voting is considered one of the most important forms of political participation because it is the primary mechanism by which the people ensure that their government represents them. Compared to other countries, the United States does not have high voter turnout. At roughly 66 percent, voter turnout in the 2020 election was high relative to other years, but compared to countries such as Sweden, South Korea, and Turkey, which have rates close to 80 percent, US elections have room for improvement.
Several factors prevent people from voting. In terms of individual-level characteristics, older voters are more likely to vote for a variety of reasons, including simply having more time to go to the polls. Those with higher incomes who are not at risk of losing their jobs or who have more flexible working hours are also more likely to vote. Race is another predictor of voter turnout, though in the 2020 election, the share of minority voters grew. Gender is yet another determinant of voter turnout, with women voting at higher rates than men. Institutional factors such as voter registration, voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and voter fatigue also affect voter turnout. Voter registration and ID requirements can affect the ease with which voters can participate in elections. Countries with automatic registration and states that register voters automatically when they get their driver’s licenses have higher rates of electoral participation. Gerrymandering, in which district lines are drawn to favor one party over another, can affect whether people show up to vote, as does voter fatigue—the idea that there are simply too many elections for people to want to take part in.
There are several ways to participate in politics other than voting. On an individual level, people can write to their elected officials; volunteer for causes they believe in; donate money to candidates, causes, or campaigns; keep informed about politics and discuss topics of personal importance; and follow elected officials or political causes online. People can also participate as part of a group by joining political parties or campaigns and by taking part in protests. All of these activities contribute to social capital, which is the idea that individuals form connections that benefit their own interests and that these social networks in turn produce communities that create norms of reciprocity and promote more civil engagement overall.
Public opinion is the aggregation of individual views that represent the feelings people hold on an issue at one point in time that they are willing to express. Many things can affect how people form their opinions and why they have them, including social and economic factors such as race, education level, income, or ideology. There are different types of opinion, including majority opinion (the opinion of the numerical majority), elite opinion (the opinion of those members of society with highly specialized knowledge or influence), and opinions of issue publics, or those people who hold strong opinions on a few specific issues but not on every issue.
Measuring public opinion is both a skill and a science. In order to attempt to accurately capture public sentiment, researchers must draw samples from the broader public, which usually entails selecting a probability sample using random digit dialing. Errors can occur if the sample size is too small or if the survey suffers from measurement error. Examples of such errors include selection bias, question wording effects, interviewer effects, response bias, and social desirability.
Public opinion is important because it is the mechanism by which the public alerts elected officials of their preferences. Elected officials also rely on swaying public opinion in order to sell a legislative agenda to the public as the best course of action. In addition, understanding public opinion across countries allows for global cooperation and partnership.