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Introduction to Political Science

8.5 What Are Elections and Who Participates?

Introduction to Political Science8.5 What Are Elections and Who Participates?

Learning Outcomes

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

  • Define the term election.
  • Explain why elections are important to democracy and popular participation.
  • Describe some weaknesses of popular elections.
  • Discuss who votes in elections.

Elections take many forms, from student body elections where a group of peers elect one of their own to represent their interests within their school, to a national election that selects a country’s president. An election is a formal decision-making process in which groups determine which individuals will hold public office. In certain states and countries, elections are a means for citizens to select among policy preferences. As Rutgers University professor Gerald Pomper writes, elections are a positive means by which groups can seek particular goals.86

Why Are Elections Important to Representative Democracy?

Frequent elections are a hallmark of any representative democracy because they allow elected members of government to understand the will of the people and they give people the opportunity to select these representatives and policies based on their preferences. From an American perspective, as Madison writes in Federalist Paper No. 52, “Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.”87 In other words, if voters are expected to depend upon and trust their representatives, frequent elections are necessary to ensure the government understands the electorate’s needs. Elections can also be seen as competitions where interest groups and political parties use their resources to convince groups of voters to vote for certain candidates over others.88 The competitive nature of elections allows voters to “comparison shop” and forces candidates to be open about their objectives and plans. Competitive elections encourage voters to make electoral decisions, and these collective decisions should work to move elected officials in one direction over another in order to maintain their roles.

What Can I Do?

Social Responsibility and Elections

I voted sticker in 13 different languages
Figure 8.7 “I Voted” sticker (credit: "I Voted" by The Marmot/Flickr, CC BY)

As students of political science, we are often challenged with explaining how the various fields, theories, and topics we study can translate into something tangibly relevant to the world outside of political science. This link is particularly clear when studying elections since elections give us the opportunity to directly take part in the democratic process through a particular form of civic engagement: voting. Voting, however, is not the only form of civic engagement related to elections. Individuals can also volunteer to work at the polls on Election Day, they can work to help register voters, and they can also volunteer to support the campaign of a preferred candidate. By participating in elections, we each have a chance to have our own voice heard within the halls of power through the selection of elected officials as well as voting on referenda and constitutional amendments. Each of us should strive to understand the role we play in our own community, how our communities intersect with other communities, and the importance of engaging in the civic life of all levels of government.

What Are Some Problems with Elections?

Elections are not without their problems. In economics, the theory of adverse selection refers to the idea that sellers, not buyers, have the upper hand when it comes to information, especially when it comes to product quality. For example, when a family goes to a shelter to select a puppy, they tend to know relatively little about the puppy’s lineage, what kind of environment it was born or raised in, and what the puppy is like day to day. The family has only limited information to help them decide which puppy to select, much as limited information impairs voters’ ability to make choices about policies and candidates. For example, a recent ballot initiative in California asked voters to decide if drivers of rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft are employees or contractors. The two companies spent $205 million dollars to persuade voters to exempt them from treating their drivers as workers.89 Since voters cannot fully educate themselves on everything they must vote on, the information asymmetry can often benefit the candidate or, in this case, the companies that can spend the most on communicating with potential voters. This example also sheds light on the problematic costs of elections. As mentioned, the last presidential election cost $14 billion, all to persuade voters to cast a ballot a certain way. As we will discuss later in the chapter, how and when elections occur varies around the world, but the high cost of elections is a uniquely American problem.

Elections also shed light on the problems of moral hazard. In terms of elections, a moral hazard is the risk a voter takes that a chosen candidate may not, once elected, act in the way the voter hopes, or as Pomper notes, “Elections have been held harmful because they actually promote the unqualified.” In this way, voting is an act of faith and one that may bring you, the voter, risk or disappointment down the road, particularly if a voter decides to take a chance on a candidate without experience or a candidate who performs well in an election but is not necessarily equipped to govern. Voters may consciously or subconsciously react to the problems of adverse selection and moral hazards by not voting at all. Voter suppression is defined as election practices or policies that discourage or prevent specific groups of people from voting and is another problem voters face in elections around the globe. For example, 17 million EU citizens live and work in another EU country, yet “voting patterns in Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Greece show the extent to which EU expatriates’ political rights have been eroded. Illiberal ruling parties know that these diaspora groups could hurt them electorally and avoid encouraging, or have taken steps actively to discourage, their political participation.”90 The United States has a regrettable history with voter suppression, as illustrated with Jim Crow laws in the South that barred minorities from voting through the use of literacy tests, poll taxes, and mass purges of Black voters from registration lists. States continue to engage in voter suppression, and the Brennan Center for Justice reports that between January and May of 2021, 14 states enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to the polls, including restrictions on mail-in ballots, making mail-in ballot deadlines earlier, and making voter ID laws stricter.91 Opponents of these laws explain that minorities are often the targets of such laws, as they do not have the time or resources to fulfill the necessary voter ID requirements or onerous time deadlines imposed by such laws. Voter suppression has been cited as a cause for lower turnout among minorities in states that enact these regulations.

Who Participates in Elections?

The number of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election is referred to as voter turnout. Note that there is a difference between eligible voters and registered voters. In the United States, the voting eligible population (VEP) is all citizens who have reached the minimum age to vote, regardless of registration status, excluding people who are not eligible to vote, such as noncitizens and, in certain states, convicted felons. Registered voters, on the other hand, are voters who have reached the legal voting age, have their names on a voter registration list, and meet the requirements set by their state or jurisdiction in order to vote. The number of registered voters in the United States is lower than the number of eligible voters, and the number of registered voters who actually vote is lower still. The number of adults who participated in elections in the United States in the last 20 years hovered between a low of 52 percent and a high of 66 percent in the 2020 presidential election.92 America has low voter turnout relative to other democratic countries, ranking 30th out of 35 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.93

Show Me the Data

A bar graph compares turnout of eligible voters in recent elections in ten industrialized democracies. Sweden recorded the highest turnout at 82.1%, the United Kingdom recorded the lowest at 62.3%, and the United States recorded 65%.
Figure 8.8 Country-by-country comparison of voter turnout (source: Pew Research and Global News Reports; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Who votes in American elections? In short, wealthy, older, educated Whites are the most likely demographic group to turn out to vote, while Asians, Hispanic Americans, those with less than a high school degree, and voters under the age of 24 have among the lowest turnout rates. Though the number of eligible voters has grown throughout the nation’s history, the disparity among groups still exists for many reasons.

Show Me the Data

A bar graph shows recent voting trends in the U.S. by demographic group. Most years, turnout has been highest among Non-Hispanic Whites and lowest among Non-Hispanic Asians and Hispanics. Turnout was highest overall in 2020, except among Non-Hispanic Blacks, who turned out in large numbers for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Figure 8.9 Voting in the United States by demographic group (source: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November Supplement, 2008 to 2020; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In his seminal work on voter participation, University of California professor Arend Lijphart provides insights into the multiplicity of reasons for low voter turnout in the United States. These include the frequency of elections, off-year elections, holding elections on weekdays, and voter registration rules.94 The frequency of elections leads to what some call voter fatigue, whereby the demands of multiple elections leave voters feeling apathetic or disengaged. With presidential elections every four years, congressional elections every two years, plus a multitude of local, state, and special elections, Americans face too many choices too many times. Subsequent studies have supported the claim that the frequency of elections depressed voter turnout in other countries as well.95 In the United States, there is also a marked drop-off in participation during off-year elections, when there is no presidential race, only state and local races. Election frequency is also posited as the reason for low voter turnout in Switzerland, which at roughly 40 percent turnout and despite compulsory voting, has one of the lowest percentages of voting-eligible people in a developed country who cast ballots in a national election.96 Some suggest that an Election Day holiday, where voting day is a national holiday or voters vote on a weekend, would boost turnout in the United States. Typically, US elections are held during the week, when most people have work or school commitments, whereas countries such as Japan vote on Sundays. The set of conditions voters must meet and be able to prove in order to be eligible to vote, known as voter registration requirements, are also often cited as a reason for low voter participation in the United States. Unlike in other countries, such as Japan, China, and most of Europe and South America, where voter registration is automatic, voter registration is not compulsory in the United States. Many argue that leaving the onus of registration on the voter prevents easy access to the polls. Voter registration requirements also vary widely across states. Twenty-one states allow individuals to register and vote on the same day, while five states have automatic voter registration systems. The remaining states require voters to register anywhere between a week and 30 days prior to the election.97

In addition to institutional barriers, there are other explanations for why people do not vote, including declines in social capital and trust of government. Communities with higher social capital, or relationships forged in political and other social networks that help citizens resolve collective problems, enjoy lower levels of crime and higher levels of trust in government.98 Higher levels of social capital are also associated with the willingness to vote. Researchers argue that encouraging individuals to join groups leads to increased community involvement and thus civic participation,99 and this has been shown in studies of Italy,100 as well as multiple democratic countries.101 As levels of trust in the government have fallen, participation has fallen, and the perception of the lack of integrity in the electoral system has also been correlated with lower turnout.

Show Me the Data

A line graph shows changing levels of trust in government among US adults since 1958. Trust dropped sharply from a high of 77% in 1964 to a low of 27% in 1980, rebounded off and on in the 1980s and 1990s, rose to 54% in 2000, and has dropped and hovered between 15% and 20% since.
Figure 8.10 Changing levels of trust in government among US adults (source: Survey of US adults conducted July 27-Aug. 2, 2020; trend sources: Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (2020), Pew Research Center phone surveys (2019 and earlier), National Election Studies, Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, and CNN Polls; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)
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