Understanding Voter Turn Out in the US Elections


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

To think about low voter turnout in the US elections, let’s look at it from the perspective of an individual. For a long time, scholars thought about the individual decision to vote as a sort of paradox. In fact, it’s known as the paradox of voting and it arises when people approach voting from the perspective of what economic theory calls a rational decision-maker.

Hands holding a sheet with the message “YOUR VOTE MATTERS” written on it.
According to some studies voting is contagious. (Image: StunningArt/Shutterstock)

Reason Why People Actually Vote

For a long time, scholars continued to think about voting as an individual choice. They suggested that the reason individuals vote is out of a sense of civic duty. It’s like the warm and fuzzy feeling people get for having done the right thing, or when they contribute to a worthy cause. 

For decades scholars thought that this intrinsic psychological benefit was, for many people, a sufficient benefit to help them overcome the costs of voting. But in the last 20 years, the theory of voting has advanced significantly. Today, it is clear that an individual’s decision to vote is not so much about the costs and benefits that any person faces; rather, it has more to do with the social context in which each person finds themselves.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US GovernmentWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Contagious Voting Behavior

Scholars have found that voting is even contagious. A fascinating study from the University of Notre Dame used an experiment to demonstrate voting contagion. The experimenter canvassed neighborhoods, going door-to-door to speak with people. Households that were randomly selected to be in the control group were greeted with a message about recycling and a pamphlet that encouraged them to recycle. 

Households that were randomly selected to be in the treatment group were encouraged to vote and given a pamphlet with information about the next election. The experimenter found that people in the treatment group were, in fact, more likely to vote compared to the people who only received a message about recycling. This was not a new scientific finding. For some time, it was shown that people are more likely to vote when they have been asked to vote by another person.

Is Voting a Community Activity?

Two women and one man voting in booths at a polling station, with the American flag in the background.
Voting is a whole community event. (Image: vesperstock/Shutterstock)

The tendency to vote is a socially determined and contagious activity. If someone lives in a community where people tend not to participate in politics or vote, that has an impact on that person’s decision to participate. In this way, people should no longer think about voting as an individual activity. 

Whether or not someone votes is not solely determined by the individual costs and benefits they face; rather, it’s determined by the community of people around them. Voting is very much a community activity.

Learn more about American democracy.

Predicting People’s Likelihood of Voting

There are a few key characteristics out there, but it is very hard to decide which one is the best predictor of whether or not someone will vote: income, education, race, gender, and age. It turns out that all of these are associated with voting. 

Someone who has a high income is more likely to vote. People who have more education are more likely to vote. Whites are more likely to vote than nonwhites. Women are more likely to vote than men. And older people are more likely to vote than younger people. 

But which one of the five is the best predictor for whether or not someone will vote? It turns out that education is the most predictive trait. But things are rarely that simple. A better way to predict whether someone will vote is to see if they share many of these traits. Yet, even this isn’t straightforward. 

Correlation of Voting with the Community

People who are more educated tend to have higher incomes and live in neighborhoods where people own their homes, live there for many years, and develop a strong sense of community. But it turns out that it’s not so much the education, income, or social position that makes one more likely to vote. 

While these characteristics correlate highly with voting, the best way to understand whether or not someone will vote is to look and see if they live in a community where they feel deeply rooted. As before, today, people understand voting more as a social phenomenon rather than an individual one. People are also more likely to vote when they think that an election is going to be close and where voting is easy with few restrictions on registration and such. 

Learn more about individual opinion and political identity.

Voter Turnout and Implications for Politics and Elections

The differences in demographics and voter turnout have important implications for politics and elections. Given that white, older, higher income, and more educated people tend to vote more than their counterparts, it behooves anyone running for office to appeal to the populations of people who vote more than to those who don’t. 

An image of the Capitol Building.
The imbalance in voter turnout proves why members of Congress are mostly male and white. (Image: Tinatin/Shutterstock)

The electorate does not look like the rest of America, and this winds up having important implications for representation and policymaking. The voting population is more likely to get attention from policymakers, political parties, interest groups, and candidates. 

With limited resources, the most efficient thing to do is expand them on voters rather than non-voters. This imbalance helps to explain why Congress is whiter and more male-dominated than the general population.

Common Questions about Understanding Voter Turn Out in the US Elections

Q: What is meant by contagious voting?

Studies have revealed voting is contagious. Usually, a person whose family and relatives go to the polls is more likely to vote in an election.

Q: How does the community affect voter turnout?

There is a close relationship between the level of voter turnout and the community in which they live. Studies have shown that a person is more likely to vote if he/she lives in a community where most people participate in political events like voting.

Q: What characteristics predict someone’s likelihood of voting?

Many features affect voter turnout. These characteristics include income, education, gender, age, race, and so on. In order to predict who will vote, one has to take into account all these factors together.

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