Fighting Turnout Burnout

Why Europeans turn out at higher rates and how to improve American participation

by Richard B. Freeman

The American Prospect magazine, June 2004


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 members.

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 Economics.

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