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The world’s beacon of democracy doesn’t shine so bright when it comes to actually, you know, voting

MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater
Belgium ranked #1. The United States, which likes to consider itself the beacon of world democracy, came in 27th.

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:

  1. Most other democracies don’t require voters to go through a separate task of registering to vote.
  2. 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.)
  3. Some countries make voting mandatory.
  4. 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). 

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/19/2017 - 12:30 pm.

    Eric, You Forgot

    That, as you have stated in the past, we are the only country that holds off year Congressional elections, as well as primaries.

    Also not mentioned is the elitist idea that we really don’t everyone to vote. You know, “those people” don’t know what they’re really doing, so it’s OK to put up barriers that discourage “them” from showing up.

    Of great interest to me is the idea that Tuesday was established as election day because it made the process easier for citizens to participate. Therefore, it’s in keeping with tradition to move elections to Saturday. As an election judge, I like it during the week, as MN law mandates my employer to pay me my usual wages and giving up a Saturday is less desirable. But I’d take one for the team.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/19/2017 - 01:45 pm.

    Anothr factor

    All the countries cited have much smaller populations than we do.
    That may be a factor in how important or influential people feel that their vote is in national elections.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/19/2017 - 02:24 pm.

    Cultural Difference

    There is a powerful strain of thinking in the United States, all across the political spectrum, that hates politics. The Government–some mysterious entity that apparently generated spontaneously, just to make our lives hell–is the enemy. I’ve heard many people brag about not voting “because they’re all a bunch of crooks.” There is also the persistent refrain that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the parties (“Hilary is no different from Trump,” the slogan of the die-hard Sanders supporter), so why bother?

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/19/2017 - 02:40 pm.


    Again, why is higher voter participation considered to be better? Better voting participation may be achieved by making it mandatory, as Mr. Black mentioned, or it may be achieved by giving away beer and books, like it was in the Soviet Union (in addition to threat of losing some benefits at work)… In a free country one of the freedoms is to not vote and, considering that the law makes it mandatory for employers to let people out for voting, there are really no obstacles to voting… Of course, comparing America to European countries is hardly valid considering all the differences… For example, they never had to travel for a day to the polling station.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/19/2017 - 03:09 pm.

      High Participation

      For one thing, high participation means that the candidates selected will–in theory, at least–be more representative of the people they are supposed to represent. For another, citizen participation is necessary to a functioning democracy. That isn’t to say voting should be mandatory. It is merely to say that it should be made as easy as possible.

      There wasn’t much to like about Soviet elections, but I do think this beer and books incentive should be considered here.. Is there a second for that motion?

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/19/2017 - 04:15 pm.

        I’ll second the motion

        …and I don’t drink, not even beer. It’s the books that I find appealing.

        I can’t remember if it’s attributed to Pericles (my guess) or Socrates, but one of those old, dead, Greek guys in Athens a long time ago said something like: “The man who has no interest in politics has no business here.” Yes, it’s sexist, and comes from a society that made heavy use of slaves, but the point remains valid, I think.

        People who truly loathe politics and politicians as a kind of general rule of life are missing the point of democratic government. “The people rule” means we’re ALL politicians, or should be. If you can’t be bothered with even the very minimal participation in self-government that voting requires, you’re absolutely and positively disqualified from complaining about any government policy, publicly or privately. Living in a society that purports to be self-governing requires, ipso facto, that the people govern themselves. We’ve yet to devise a way to do that without some form of participation, and the demands of voting are pretty minimal.

        Of course, if your preference is autocracy or monarchy, none of the above paragraph applies, and you’re welcome to return to the 17th century—or earlier.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/20/2017 - 09:19 am.

          Right as usual!

          Intellectual laziness is a good part of it.

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/21/2017 - 01:14 pm.

          I agree

          I guess I failed to mention that the reason good beer and good books were a lure for voting was that they were otherwise not available in the stores. And I also have to say that the “free” term was not exactly correct either because people were paying regular government established prices for them which were significantly lower than the black market price… Sorry to break this bad news…

          Yes, I agree, citizen participation is necessary for a functioning democracy. However, citizen knowledge of civics and current politics is also necessary for a functioning democracy. And having the former without the latter is not helpful if not outright harmful. And that is what I have been saying all along: we don’t need more voters; we need more informed voters. If people don’t bother to register and come to vote (considering how easy it actually is, as I mentioned before), they are either uninformed and don’t care or informed enough to make that decision (one can call it intellectual laziness but it is irrelevant). In both cases, they should not be enticed to vote so all voters drives are a bad idea…

          • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/21/2017 - 08:22 pm.


            “However, citizen knowledge of civics and current politics is also necessary for a functioning democracy. And having the former without the latter is not helpful if not outright harmful”

            Couldn’t agree more: And now we all know why we have Trump!

            • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/23/2017 - 07:45 am.

              You are correct – that is why we have Trump. That is also why we had Obama, especially in his second term… I also wonder who Democrats are trying to convince to vote by their voter drives… My wild guess is that those knowledgeable of civics and politics don’t need a push to vote…

            • Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/26/2017 - 06:24 pm.

              Civics in schools …..

              is not the same thing as it once was. Some schools do not even offer civics. Here is a link to a researched reading ….
              There are others that speak to the mouthing of support for civics but the funding not being there. Here

              Like of lot of issues days civics education is gets caught up in the political divide. Essentially the push to limit money to support education comes from one side of the aisle and the other side struggles to overcome the less then fact based arguements of the budget slicers. That is playing out at this very moment with the Minnesota budget. I am tired of lip service being paid to civics. One could almost trace the history of cutbacks to civics to the results of this last election if one were to dare to research.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/23/2017 - 09:57 am.

          It was Pericles the politician.

          Socrates was less interested in practical matters.

  5. Submitted by Alan Straka on 05/19/2017 - 04:39 pm.

    Be careful what you wish for,

    In Belgium voting is compulsory. If you don’t vote, you can be fined. If you don’t vote in 4 elections you are barred from voting for ten years (a rather bizarre incentive IMHO). Do we really want to force people to vote? It seems to me that if you don’t care enough to vote, you probably haven’t given due consideration to the candidates and issues and it would be better if you stayed home. In fact, it seems pretty obvious from the last election that a significant number of those who voted didn’t think things through before showing up at the polls. Democracy works when you have an intelligent, educated electorate. You only have to look at our elected representatives to see that is not the case in the US.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/19/2017 - 04:57 pm.

    The real issue for the politicians is that the “right” people turn out.

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/20/2017 - 11:18 am.

    Broaden the tax base will increase the voter turnout.

    If you want to increase voter turnout – broaden the tax base for federal income taxes and capital gains taxes. More people will feel the burden and understand the cost of government and then will want a say in how the money is redistributed.

    If you really want to increase voter turnout to even higher levels – tax employer provided health insurance as income.

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