Voting and Elections in America

There are many types of elections in the United States. Elections are the way in which citizens choose representatives that ideally best reflect their policy preferences. Elections might also help the public to hold some politicians accountable.[1] As you might guess, things can be a bit more complex than that.

As we discussed, governance in the United States is characterized by the system of federalism and separation of powers. This complex system of governance means that people end up voting for a great number of offices and voting procedures. Some argue that the great number of elections in the U.S. can contribute to low turnout rates (voter fatigue).

In direct democracies, people would directly vote on policy outcomes. This type of voting is not possible in larger communities. Instead, we have a representative government, in which people choose politicians to achieve desired policy objectives.

[1] Thmassen, Jacques. Elections and Democracy: Representation and Accountability. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2014.

The results of the 2016 presidential election renewed discussions about the Electoral College (EC). Trump won the EC vote, while Clinton won the popular vote. Many wonder how it can be that the president is not the winner of the popular vote. That’s because we have an indirect way of choosing the president. The winner is not be chosen by the popular vote (the total number of people voting for a candidate), but rather by the Electoral College. There are 538 Electoral College votes. As originally designed, the Electoral College was a way of indirectly electing the president, “each state was to select a number of electors equal to the number of congressmen plus the number of senators.”[1] States had their own rules on how to select these electors.[2] Things have changed a bit over time in terms of how the Electoral College operates. Today, most states give all Electoral College votes to the candidate that wins the most popular votes, (except in Maine and Nebraska[3]).

Watch this video to get a clearer understanding of the Electoral College.

[1] Maisel, L. Sandy. American Political Parties and Elections. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

The image above depicts how turnout among the voting age population in the U.S. compares to turnout rates in other countries in 2012. Notice that only a bit more than half, 53.6%, of the voting age population in the U.S. participated, whereas in Belgium and Turkey the rate was closer to 90%. (You may access the interactive graph here). The U.S. is nearly at the bottom of the scale, with rates comparable to those of Japan, Chile, and Switzerland. We might ask, why is it the case that turnout in the U.S. is so low? Why is it so low in Switzerland? This is a topic of debate among political scientists. Some argue that this has something to do with electoral institutions. Both the U.S. and Switzerland have some of the most difficult processes for voting in place (Wattenberg, 2000). Others note that maybe voters are apathetic and lack interest in participating in elections.

One way to explore this turnout trend further is to focus on the trend in turnout in the U.S. over time.

Back in the nineteenth century, almost everyone eligible to vote went to the polls to cast a ballot. Turnout rates averaged about 80% nationwide, and up to 90% in some states. In the graph below, notice that from 1850 to about 1896, voting rates were consistently high.

Then in 1896 turnout dropped sharply by about 20 points, from about 80% to 60%, and this happened in less than 10 years! Notice that turnout then dropped again at around 1920. It increased afterwards. In the 1950s, we see rates rising again to the 60% level. But, then after the 1950s, voting rates drop again down to the 50% level—which is where we are today (though rates have increased a bit in recent elections, slightly over the 50% mark).

What we see here are three classic puzzles of low turnout in the political science literature. These include the post-1896 drop, the 1920 drop, and the post-1965 drop.

Each puzzle has a different explanation.

The post-1896 Turnout Drop

One thing that is striking is that after the 1896 drop, turnout rates never return to their previous levels. So, what happened? There are two competing hypothesis seeking to account for this drop. One argues that changes in electoral institutions influenced the low participation rates. The other, argues that a decline in party competition led to the turnout drop.

The declining competition thesis contends that by the late nineteenth century elections were not as close as they had been in the past. For example, a state that was previously a battleground state was no longer competitive. Imagine for example that in the 2016 race Florida had become a non-competitive state. Well, that is what happened back then in some states. Some previously competitive states became uncompetitive. This can lead to reduced turnout because in such circumstances parties lack incentives to mobilize voters.

The electoral institutional explanation argues that the turnout drop was not consequent to declining mobilization, but rather, that a number of electoral institutions meant to weaken the hold parties had over the electorate made it more difficult to vote and also eliminated a great deal of political corruption. Most states adopted the Australian Ballot, state-printed ballots that replaced the former party-printed ballots. This meant that parties were less able to engage in the corrupt practice of buying and selling votes.

During this time, we also saw the implementation of in-person voter registration systems. In the U.S. voter registration systems have been in place during most of the nation’s history. Massachusetts had the first system in 1800s and other states followed suit. But the earlier systems for the most part consisted of a board of registration making lists of known voters in their respective towns. Communities were smaller back then and most voters were known to the early election administration systems, which were in the stages of early development.

But, in the late 1800s, many states began calling for more stringent voter registration systems. Now, most states implemented in-person voter registration systems. This meant people had to go to vote at a specific location during the few days registration was open. Most states had from 1 to about 5 days of registration, and hours could at times be limited to regular business hours (but this varied greatly by state). The electoral institutions argument thus notes that because voting became much more difficult at this time, turnout dropped.

Another explanation synthesizes both of these views, arguing that the turnout dropped resulted from a combination of declining political competition and the implementation of electoral institutions that weakened parties and made voting more difficult.

The 1920 and post-1950s drop

The 1920s drop has a fairly simple explanation. With passage of the 19th Amendment, women gained the right to vote. This meant that the size of the electorate expanded. But, contrary to expectations, many women failed to participate in elections. Turnout dropped because the voting eligible population increased, but women did not vote.

The post-1950s puzzle is different than the other two. After the 1950s, we saw turnout in the decline. But, contrary to what happened in the late nineteenth century when voting regulations were becoming more stringent, now most states were easing voting requirements. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated many of the restrictions that made it difficult for racial and ethnic minorities to participate. Residency and registration were becoming more lax, and poll hours were extended. The puzzle then is, why did turnout drop when it was becoming easier for people to vote?

Theories of voting behavior attempt to explain why people vote and more generally what influences turnout. One school of thought, advanced by the authors of the classic in political science, The American Voter, is that voters in the U.S. were for the most part unsophisticated and uninformed, making voting decisions largely based on party ID. Party ID is one of the most stable attitudes, often influenced by the party ID of the voter’s parents.[1] Voters lacked a “coherent ideology.” This doesn’t mean ideology in the sense that we usually think of it (in terms of liberal or conservative ideology). Rather, it means that voters lacked real opinions on issues and were unable to form a consistent ideology (for example, they might support positions that are seemingly contradictory on an ideological scale). The view that voters are unsophisticated suggests concerns about voting and democratic governance in general, because it means that decisions about representation can be based on manipulation of voters by the media and politicians.[2]

V.O. Key, Jr., disagreed with the general conclusion of The American Voter, arguing in The Responsible Electorate that “voters are not fools.” He argued instead that voters tend to “switch” strategically, punishing or rewarding the incumbent party in elections. This means that when voters seem to support opposing ideologies or parties, their behavior is far from irrational. Instead, it is based on strategic evaluations of the party in power.

Voters might make decisions based on prospective or retrospective voting. Prospective voting means that voters base decisions on what might happen in the future, whereas retrospective voting means they base decisions on the past. Key held that most voting decisions were retrospective.

For a challenge to the retrospective theory of voting behavior, read this paper, Blind Retrospection: Why Shark Attacks are Bad for Democracy, by Larry Bartels and Chris Achen. The paper has garnered a great deal of attention with the results of the 2016 election. Many argue that voters in this race elected a candidate that does not represent their best interests. They wonder if voters are indeed rational in making the voting decision.

Recounting the events of a series of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1917, (on which the Jaws movies were based on), Bartels and Achen, argue that retrospective voting is “blind.” Voters in New Jersey seemed to blame incumbent presidential candidate Wilson for shark attacks he clearly had no responsibility for. This view challenges the “responsible electorate” position, holding that voters can be more irrational than is often presumed. This “shark attack” argument suggest that voters are not sophisticated and can be irrational about the decision to vote. What do you think? How do you think this “shark attack” theory applies to the current pandemic and the 2020 election?

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