In the most recent national election in Belgium, 87.2 percent of the voting-age population turned out to vote. In the United States, in last year’s presidential election, it was 55.7 percent. The current incumbent won the election with the support of 46.1 percent of those whose votes were counted, which means he had the votes of 25.7 percent of the voting-age population. (Of course, in fairness, his leading opponent, Hillary Clinton, received the votes of just 48.2 percent of the votes cast which comes to just 26.8 percent of the voting-age population.)
Those numbers (except for the last bits about Trump and Clinton’s share of the vote) are from a hot-off-the-presses Pew Research Center study, which counted and ranked all 35 of the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, all of which are democracies, on voter participation.
Belgium ranked #1. Our country, which likes to consider itself the beacon of world democracy, came in 27th. That’s out of 35. Congratulations, USA, we’re not #1, we’re nowhere near #1, but we didn’t finish last. But that ranking of 27th out of 35 democracies actually makes us look better than we should.
The United States is essentially alone among world democracies in alternating our major Election Days between a presidential year (when all 435 seats in the U.S. House are also on the ballot and one third of the Senate seats) and what we call a “midterm” election, in which the presidency is not on the ballot but all House seats and a third of the Senate seats are.
For lack of a White House race to drive interest, turnout in midterm elections generally drops off by about 20 percentage points from the previous presidential race. On the last such Election Day, in November of 2014 — with at least a race for Congress on the ballot everywhere, and two-thirds of states also choosing a senator, and many others a governor — 33.2 percent of the eligible voting age population voted, the worst turnout number since World War II and a number which, if it had been used in the Pew ranking above, would indeed have entitled team USA to last place in voter participation.
This is fairly normal in the USA, if a bit worse than usual. We usually avert our eyes from it so we can go on believing ourselves to be that beacon of world democracy.
The reasons we are so bad at voter participation are many and a little complicated. If you are a liberal, your mind will go to various methods used in red states to make it harder for poor people and people of color to vote. And that’s absolutely part of the overall story. But only part and not the biggest part. I looked a bit deeper into the question for a MinnPost series in 2014 titled “Electoral Dysfunction,” which focused on various aspects of Team USA’s less than gold-medal-winning in the Democracy Olympics. This link will get you that piece, but if you don’t click through, here’s the one-minute version summarizing four factors that might not leap to mind:
- Most other democracies don’t require voters to go through a separate task of registering to vote.
- Nobody else holds elections on Tuesday (because why on earth would they? The U.S. started having elections on Tuesdays so farmers could stay home and go to church on Sunday, then have Monday to travel by horse and cart to the county seat in time to vote on Tuesday and then head back to the farm.)
- Some countries make voting mandatory.
- Very few countries take away voting rights if you get convicted of a crime (and many of them allow you to vote from prison even when you are doing time for your crime). The 50 states are (no pun intended) all over the map on this but at the most extreme end of the spectrum, many ex-felons lose their voting privileges for life even after serving their time.
Those generalizations about hard-to-defend things that prevent voting in the United States apply differently across the states. Minnesota has the model pro-participation rules on many of those issues. We allow unregistered voters to register on Election Day right at the polling place. We allow no-hassle early voting for those who find it hard to vote on Tuesdays, or those who just want to beat the rush and avoid long lines. We allow “no excuse” absentee voting by mail for those who find that convenient. We automatically restore voting rights to felons after they have served their prison time and completed supervised release. And so on.
Partly as a result of those measures, and partly because we’re Minnesotans, we are always among the top states in voter participation. In fact, in 2016, we were Number One among the states, as we often have been over recent cycles, with 75 percent of eligible Minnesotans voting in the 2016 general election cycle. Compared to the national figure of 55.7 of the voting-age population, Minnesotans number looks pretty good (although the statistics for voting-age and “eligible voters” don’t match up perfectly).
But Minnesota’s “good” 75 percent participation would not put it very close to the OECD ranking I referred to at the top. Not only Belgium but Sweden, South Korea, Denmark, Australia, Norway, Netherlands, Iceland and Israel, based on the Pew methodology, had higher voting participation than Minnesota’s (based on share of eligible voters).