From Academic Kids
Voter turnout varies considerably from democracy to democracy. It tends to be quite low in the United States, Canada, and Latin America when compared to most of Europe, Oceania and Asia. In Western Europe 77% of eligible voters cast ballots on average, in the United States it is closer to 50%, in Latin America the average has been 53% since 1945.
Factors that affect turnout are hard to measure. Wealth and literacy have some effect but are not good measures. Countries such as Angola and Ethiopia have long had high turnouts, but so have the wealthy states of Europe. The United Nations Human Development Index shows some correlation with voter behaviour, with higher standards of living being linked to higher turnout.
It is not clear what effect different voting systems, for example first past the post versus proportional representation, have on voter turnout. This question is difficult in part because there is a relative scarcity of data on true proportional representation elections. It can at least be said that voting systems seem to affect voter turnout less than many other factors such as the Human Development Index or the competitiveness of the election.
Individual elections within a country can show considerable variation. One issue found only in the continent spanning nations such as Canada, the United States and Russia is that of time zones. Western Americans have often complained that since the election has already been decided in the east of the country that turnout is depressed on the Pacific coast. Canada has in the past partially resolved this problem by banning the broadcasting of election results in any region where the polls have not yet closed, but recently this ban has been lifted.
The weather also can have an important effect with rain or snow reducing turnouts, especially among moderates. The date an election is held also can change turnout. Weekend and summer elections find more of the population on holiday or uninterested in politics and have lower turnouts. When nations, such as the United States, set fixed election dates they are usually in mid-week during the spring or fall to maximize turnout.
Voter fatigue can also lower turnout. If there are many elections in close succession due to unstable governments, or if referenda are held too frequently voter turnout will decrease as the public gets tired of participating.
However, as seen with the U.S. Presidential Election, 2004, one of the factors most likely to increase turnout is a close race. With an intensely polarised electorate and all polls showing a photo-finish between President of the United States George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry, the turnout in 2004 was close to 60% resulting in the both candidates setting records for popular votes with Kerry even beating Ronald Reagan's 1984 record despite losing the election. Similarly, sure-thing elections where one vote is not seen to be able to make a difference have resulted in lower turnouts such as Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election, the UK General Election, 2001 and the 2005 Spanish referendum on the European Constitution. All of which produced landslide results on a low turnout.
Recently in North America voter turnout has been steadily decreasing. For instance four out of five eligible Canadians voted in the 1963 general election. In the 2000 election, only two out of three cast ballots.
Some scholars believe this is a sign of disaffection with politics, that scandals such as Watergate combined with negative campaigning and a general distrust of the political process have turned the public away from politics. Some blame the decline on the increasing similarity between the major parties in both the United States and Canada.
Others take a more positive view arguing that the reduced number of voters reflects the widespread contentment with the status quo.
Especially unlikely to vote are youth; in Canada today only one in five young people vote in federal elections. By contrast seniors are the most likely group to vote. Some are concerned that this biases the political process, for instance health care may get more funding than education because one is a concern of seniors the other of youths.
There is also concern that decreasing voter turnout will radicalize politics. If most voters are the core supporters of a party then getting out the vote efforts become increasingly important and begin to replace actually winning the votes of the undecided. This can lead to parties shunning centrist position for ones that will appeal to the base.
Some countries impose rule to increase voter turnout, this is known as compulsory voting. Australia, for instance makes voting and registration mandatory, imposing punishments on those who do not vote. The country thus has one of the world's highest voter turnouts. Other countries including Belgium, Argentina, and Fiji also have such laws. In some countries these laws exist but punishments are minimal or rarely enforced. The main criticism of compulsory voting is that it is removes the freedom to not vote to those who object to the process. Such laws could also led to ill-informed voting, or voters who cast ballots at random.
Russian electoral laws render an election invalid if too small a section of the population casts ballots, as did those of Serbia and Montenegro until recent changes after several successive presidential elections were rendered invalid. In the United States, some elections require a double majority to require a reasonable voter turnout.
Other methods of improving turnout include making voting easier through more available absentee polling and improved access to polls. Some areas have also pondered internet voting as a possible solution. Many districts have also launched public education campaigns to try to encourage voting, especially among the young.
- IDEA: Voter Turnout (http://www.idea.int/voter_turnout)
- Fairvote.org: Voter Turnout (http://www.fairvote.org/turnout/)
- The United States Election Project at GMU (http://elections.gmu.edu/)