Fighting Turnout Burnout
Why Europeans turn out at
higher rates and how to improve American participation
by Richard B. Freeman
The American Prospect magazine,
In the last presidential elections, about
half of Americans did not vote; many of them said they were too
busy or not interested enough. In nonpresidential-election years,
voter turnout has barely exceeded one-third of voting-age adults.
The American record is especially embarrassing
in contrast to nearly every other advanced democracy. In national
elections since 1990, 67 percent of the British voting-age population
cast ballots, as did 73 percent of Germans, 59 percent of Canadians,
60 percent of the French, and 89 percent of Italians. The 2004
election in Spain, which brought the Socialist Workers Party to
power, had a 77-percent electoral turnout.
If voting were unrelated to age, income,
education, and other measures of socioeconomic status, low turnout
would not affect how representative our democracy is. But advantaged
groups in America vote in large numbers while those from more
disadvantaged groups don't. This is truer today than ever before.
The presidential elections of 1998 and 2002 were by some measures
the least representative of the American people in the past half-century:
Persons younger than 35 were markedly less likely to vote than
in elections three decades earlier while those aged 65 and over
were as or more likely to vote than in the 1960s and '70s. In
2000, 82 percent of those with advanced degrees voted compared
with 38 percent of those with nine to 12 years of schooling and
just 53 percent of high-school graduates.
Why is this happening? In the early 1980s,
many analysts blamed low American turnout on the difficulty of
registering to vote. Policies to correct this problem, such as
the Motor Voter Act of 1993, have been enacted, but those changes
have not improved turnout. States that allow registration on election
day, such as Minnesota, have higher turnout than others, but not
high enough to counteract the declines in national turnout.
So how do other democracies achieve what
the United States can't? European democracies differ from the
United States in several ways. Most are parliamentary rather than
presidential. Historically, parliamentary elections produce about
s-percentage points higher turnout than presidential elections
(though this difference has been declining over time). That's
because, with only a single branch of government and the entire
parliament elected at one time, there is greater incentive to
vote than in U.S.-style elections. Secondly, in most European
countries, more than two major parties compete for proportional
representation; the greater the variety of parties running, the
greater the likelihood that voters will find one that meets their
preferences enough to draw them to the polls.
European campaigns are also shorter, giving
voters less opportunity to become disenchanted with the candidates.
But perhaps the most important difference
between European and American democracies is the strength of the
labor movement. Union density is generally higher in western Europe
than in the United States (and is higher in Canada as well). In
Europe, unions are closely tied to social-democratic parties and
mobilize working-class voters. In America, union members are 1Z
or so percentage points more likely to vote than non-union members.
While much of that edge is due to the fact that members are more
educated, higher paid, and more often hold white-collar, public-sector
jobs than other Americans, unions here are also very effective
at turning out the vote. If unions increased membership among
the less advantaged, they could also turn out the vote among those
These lessons from Europe are instructive
but maybe not productive, given that the United States is not
likely to overhaul its democratic or labor structures anytime
soon. But there is one U.S.-based model that's worth looking at.
In one region, levels of turnout are among the highest in the
world. In the 2000 presidential election, 76 percent of its voting-age
population voted. In 1998,66 percent voted-an astounding rate
in a nonpresidential year. This land of representative democracy
is Puerto Rico, where residents vote for governor but not for
president in presidential years. How do they do it? In presidential
years, election day in Puerto Rico is a holiday; off-presidential-year
elections are held on Sundays. And lest you think that there's
something inherent driving Puerto Rico's voters to the polls,
consider this: Once Puerto Ricans reach mainland shores, voting
rates among these migrants drop below the mainland average.
In the wake of the Florida fiasco of 2000,
Congress set up the Commission on Electoral Reform, headed by
former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. The commission
suggested making election day a holiday by moving it to Veterans
Day. President Bush and the Congress ignored this recommendation.
That was a mistake. As the United States seeks to advance democracy
throughout the world, making election day a holiday would be a
relatively costless way to make our elections the source of national
pride and the model to all the world that they should be.
RICHARD B. FREEMAN is a professor of economics
at Harvard University, the program director for labor studies
at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and senior research
fellow at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of
Reforming the Electoral Process