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Campaigns and Elections in the United States

Voter Turnout in the United States

Voter Registration in the United States

All American citizens 18 years and older can vote, but in most states they must register to do so. Registration laws vary by state, though most states allow it to be done online, and eligible voters can register when they obtain or renew a driver's license. Voters need proof of identity in order to register. American registration laws result in a quarter to a third of eligible voters not being registered to vote.

Under the U.S. Constitution and various laws passed by Congress, most American citizens—native-born or naturalized, male and female, of all races, ethnic groups, and religions, who are 18 years and older—are eligible to vote. In every state except North Dakota, citizens must register and must be a resident of the state for a certain period of time in order to vote. Voter registration is handled by state governments, and each state has its own laws regarding eligibility, residency, the deadline for registering to be eligible to vote in an upcoming election, and how to register. Nearly half the states allow registration on the day of an election. Many states do not allow those convicted of a felony to vote. In some states, the voting rights of convicted felons can be restored when the sentence is completed. Many states also have provisions that a person judged not mentally competent cannot vote, and some states have other limits to registering. Federal law prevents states from removing the registration of voters who do not vote. In Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute (2018), the Supreme Court upheld a law that purged nonvoters from official voter rolls if they do not vote and do not respond to a notification mailed by the state government asking them to confirm their address. Critics decried the decision as having disproportional impact on the poor and members of minority groups.

States generally require people registering to vote to provide some form of identification to verify their identity and eligibility. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 made it easier for people to register to vote. Under this law, all states accept the National Mail Voter Registration Form, which can be downloaded and mailed in. In addition, people can register in government offices, such as the state department of motor vehicles, armed forces recruiting offices, and some offices that provide benefits, such as food stamps. In more than two-thirds of the states and the District of Columbia, voters can register online. People who move or legally change their name need to update their voter registration to maintain their ability to vote. Those who change states need to register in the new state and should cancel their old voter registration. In many states, people can declare a party identification when they register or declare themselves as independents. Registering for a party is not a legal requirement for voting, but it can be a requirement to vote in a party's closed primary in that state. Any registered voter can vote for any candidate in any general election, regardless of party affiliation.

The American practice of requiring voters to register is unusual among traditional democracies around the world. In many countries registration is automatic, and records are maintained by the national government and shared with local authorities. Some countries, such as Germany and Australia, call on individuals to register but require registration of all eligible voters; people cannot choose not to register, as in the United States. Voter registration is much higher in countries with automatic or easier registration processes. In the United States an estimated one-quarter to one-third of eligible voters are not registered to vote. In comparison, registration rates in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Sweden exceed 90 percent.

Factors Affecting Voter Turnout

Voter turnout in the United States is low compared to that in other advanced democracies and has fallen over time, though turnout remains higher for presidential elections than midterm elections. Age, gender, race or ethnicity, and education are all factors that affect the likelihood that a person will vote.
Voter turnout in the United States is low in comparison to other democratic countries and lower than it was in earlier U.S. history. When based on the number of registered voters, U.S. turnout in the 2016 presidential election was only 65.4 percent. Turnout rates were higher in elections that took place from 2014 to 2017 in nearly two dozen advanced democracies in Europe, the Pacific, and Asia. When turnout is calculated based on the number of eligible voters, U.S. rates plunge to near 50 percent, putting it below even more countries. While turnout for presidential elections remained high up until 1964, it has generally fallen since then, reaching only about two-thirds of registered voters in 2016. Turnout in midterm elections is even lower, at below 50 percent since 2002.
In the United States, turnout for midterm elections is much lower than in presidential election years.
Turnout varies greatly among different groups of voters. A key factor affecting voter behavior is age. Older people tend to vote at significantly higher rates than younger voters. In fact, persons who are ages 65 to 74 years are about three times more likely to vote than persons aged 18 to 24. Several factors account for these differences. Older people are more accustomed to voting, and voting tends to become more consistent over time. Younger voters may not register, which prevents them from voting. Older people generally are more stable in their residence; the fact that younger voters move frequently means they have to update their registration or they cannot vote. Older people may also believe they have more at stake in elections, particularly because potential changes to programs that affect seniors, such as Social Security and Medicare, are often central to campaigns. Conversely, younger people may not think that campaign issues are aimed at them.

There are also gender differences in voting behavior, with women more likely to vote than men. College graduates are much more likely to vote than people with only a high school diploma. As income rises, the likelihood that a person will vote also continues to rise. Persons with higher incomes are more likely to vote than persons with lower incomes. Non-Hispanic whites are more likely to vote than ethnic minorities.

Rules and procedures of American elections can also help explain why turnout is lower in the United States than in other countries. First, Americans have the opportunity to vote far more often for far more offices than in most democracies. Americans can vote for officials from the town tax collector to the county sheriff to state judges to the president—in some cases in both primary elections and general elections. The plethora of elections provides many occasions for voters to stay home. Voting in the United States is not compulsory as it is in some other countries. Turnout in Australia, where voting is required by law, was at a historic low of 91 percent in 2016. American elections are generally held in the middle of the week, whereas other countries hold them on weekends. Some countries even make election day a holiday. These rules make it easier for working people to vote. The number of noncompetitive races in the United States, particularly for Congress, can also suppress turnout and may contribute to the much lower turnout in midterms than in presidential elections.

States have taken steps to make voting easier. More than half of U.S. states allow voters to cast ballots online, by e-mail, or by fax. More than half allow early voting. While all states allow voters to cast absentee ballots by mail, around 20 require voters to give a reason for this method of voting—and more than two dozen require no reason. Three states—Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—mail ballots to every single registered voter. Those voters simply need to mark their ballots and mail them back.

How Voters Decide

Factors that influence voters' electoral choices include the voter's party identification, the voter's view of a candidate's political experience and image, current economic conditions, and specific social and foreign policy issues. Voters may vote retrospectively, based on past performance, or prospectively, based on future expectations.
Party identification has a strong impact on how voters vote. Most Americans identify with either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. This identification often stems from the political identification of a voter's parent or parents and remains with individuals for life. Thus some voters will always vote for the candidate from the political party with which they self-identify. Party identification ranges from voters who are strongly Democratic or Republican to those who are weaker to leaners—who are not really aligned with a party but tend to favor its positions—to true independents. Rates of party identification have not changed substantially since the 1970s.

Party Identification from 1972 to 2012

Category 1972 1980 1988 1996 2004 2012
Strong Democrat 15% 18% 18% 18% 17% 20%
Weak Democrat 25% 23% 18% 19% 16% 15%
Independent Democrat 11% 11% 12% 14% 17% 12%
Independent independent 15% 15% 12% 10% 10% 14%
Independent Republican 10% 10% 13% 12% 12% 12%
Weak Republican 13% 14% 14% 15% 12% 12%
Strong Republican 10% 9% 14% 12% 16% 15%

Source: The American National Election Studies

Voters make decisions partly on their view of each candidate. Voters tend to favor a candidate with political experience over a candidate with little or no experience in politics, but there have been several exceptions to this general rule since the election of actor Ronald Reagan as governor of California in the 1960s. In addition, even experienced candidates for federal office—from Jimmy Carter in 1976 to George W. Bush in 2000—have claimed to have special merit by standing outside Washington politics. Many voters are also influenced by a candidate's image or personal characteristics. For example, being perceived as charismatic or as ethical can greatly help a candidate succeed.

Economic issues also influence how people vote. Voters tend to reward the party in power if the economy is doing well but tend to reward the opposing party if the economy is doing poorly. Voters who believe that less regulation of business and lower taxes create a better economy will likely vote for the Republican candidate. Voters who believe that business regulations are necessary and that the tax system should be progressive will likely vote for the Democratic candidate.

Specific policy issues—especially social ones—also influence voters. For example, many people strongly identify themselves as pro-life (in favor of limits to or an outright ban on abortions), while others strongly identify themselves as pro-choice (favoring fewer or no restrictions on abortion). For such voters, where a candidate stands on the issue of abortion can be the determining factor for how they vote. A person's beliefs about the proper role of the United States in world affairs and conflicts also influence how they will vote.

Political scientists have identified two types of voting that explain voter behavior. Retrospective voting refers to voting choices based on the past performance of a political party, officeholder, or administration. This type of voting evaluates candidates based on their record and the policies for which they can be seen to be responsible. A campaign ad praising a candidate's record in office appeals to this type of voting. Prospective voting refers to voting choices based on the expectations of the future performance of a political party, officeholder, or administration. This type of voting clearly comes into play with inexperienced candidates, including those running for a type of office in which they have never served, such as a member of Congress running for president.