Home > A3, Learning > Causes of Voter Turnout

Causes of Voter Turnout

The buzz that has been going around is that voter turnout in the United States has been on a steady decline over the past several decades. Today I will investigate whether this is the truth. If it is there are several theories as to why.

To start out, why would one vote in the first place? Several factors come into play when a voter decides to go through the process of voting or not. A general formula has been made to calculate whether a person will vote:

PB + D > C

P is the probability that the individual’s vote will make an affect the out come of the election. B is the benefit that the individual thinks they will receive if their candidate is elected. D is any gratification of worth the individual receives from voting and C is the cost of time and effort it takes that individual to vote. Therefore if the benefits (PB + D) out weigh the costs (C) then that individual will vote.

The factors that weigh into the percentage of voter turnout are numerous. One of the biggest factors is whether an individual has voted in the past. If they have then the chances that they will vote again exponentially increase. Therefore it is found that voting is a highly habitual thing. It is then important for parents to push their young voters to vote in their first elections or else the habit may not be formed. Other strong factors are those of the socioeconomic nature. Studies have shown that the more education a person has or the higher their income the more likely they are to vote. Ethnicity, race, and gender have not had such definitive answers. Whether voting is compulsory is also a defining factor on the percentage of voter turnout. With varying degrees of punishment put into action for not voting, turnout increases dramatically. Some of the punishments that countries with compulsory voting have in action are fines, community service, or imprisonment. Many of these countries however do not enforce or moderately enforce the compulsion of voting yet the turnout is still extremely high. The ease of voting also plays a role. Separate voting registration greatly decreases voter turnout as this takes up more time and effort from an individual and therefore increases C. Several theories have been proposed as the overarching reason for the decline.

The five theories to the decline range from the feelings of the voters themselves to the actual politics. One is an attitudinal change within the U.S. This theory asserts that many Americans have lost trust in the government, believing that politicians are not for the best interest of the people. Two is the lifestyle-change theory. Life today is simply busier, and because there are only 24 hours in a day some things have to be sacrificed, politics being one of them. The hours that are not being consumed by work are then consumed by technologies such as television, social networking, long commuting distances, or maybe even extra hours at work. The third theory is the deterioration of local party politics. These organizations would remind members of their party to vote on Election Day, especially keeping those in mind that had not voted in previous elections. Fourth, the nature of campaigns may have a role in the decline. Campaigns have grown increasingly lengthy causing many voters to lose interest. Also in this category and flowing into the fifth theory, role of news media, is the negative tone of many politicians and their ads towards their fellow candidates. These hurtful connotations to the candidates have turned many voters away because they find them distasteful.

The final question that needs to be asked however is if the decrease of voter turnout is really occurring at all and if it is maybe that isn’t a bad thing. The chart of voter turnout from 1789-2008 shows deviations of only around 10% over the past century that has a median turnout of just below 60%. The smaller time period that is looked at may show a more and more dramatic decrease in turnout but overall from a big picture view turnout has not deviated to far from its normal track. But if it did would it be all that bad. A low voter turnout is perceived to be a bad thing. The perception of low voter turnout is that people are not voting because they no longer feel the civic duty to do so of that they are too fed up with the government to even vote for a politician that shares some of their views. However the other side of the argument is not looked at. Perhaps the low voter turnout means that people are generally happy with the government and feel like they do not need to interfere as to change it. When looked at in that light low voter turnout is a good thing that should be celebrated. Which view is correct is not clear, perhaps some of both. What do you think?

  1. abb459
    May 1, 2012 at 9:52 am

    You did a GREAT job on your reflection! One of the things that you added that I found the most interesting was the formula PB + D > C. The graphs that you added were also very helpful, as well. My favorite part definitely had to be the video :). You also did a great job giving lots of factual information. The only thing I would consider adding is your own opinion about whether low voter turnout is good or bad.

  2. christinab12
    May 1, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Your post was great and the only critique I have is to incorporate opinion into the reflection a bit more, as your post is mostly factual. My other suggestion would to be to cite your source earlier when you are speaking about the formula PB + D > C because I was confused where that came from.

  3. nejohnston7
    May 1, 2012 at 10:11 am


    I love your post! It was very interesting, and the video was a hilarious and very entertaining supplement. Just a few things to think about.. Why is the formula PB + D? And why is the letter ‘D’ given for the word gratification? Very minor, just a suggestion. Also, you speak of countries with compulsory voting and you may want to mention which countries are included in that category. The bar graph is also a little small and hard to read, and it’s easy to enlarge that a bit more! Don’t forget to incorporate your opinion a bit more in your reflection as well, but overall a well-organized and thoughtful post.

  4. May 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    This is terrific – well done, indeed!!

    I’m curious about sources: is the PB + D *greater than* C equation an original idea of yours? Also, you might consider adding sources to your visuals – either as captions or links.

    And lastly, I agree with Natalie – I love that you’ve posed an interesting question about whether low voter turnout is a problem; however, I’m quite curious to know where YOU stand on the issue yourself… I could infer from your writing that you think low voter turnout is actually OK: we’re within historical norms; people who don’t vote are actually saying they are pleased with the direction of the country; and uninformed, disinterested voters actually do the country a service by staying home and leaving the decisions to folks who are engaged, and informed… I’m guessing you’d say that only people who really care should vote – am I right??

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