Many people believe that people who vote are more active in their communities and more civic minded. In this sense, voter turnout is important. While there are varying opinions on whether low voter turnout is a problem, the general opinion is that low voter turnout is a detriment to our electoral system.
However, a strong argument can be made that low voter turnout should not cause concern. Even in 1996 when turnout fell below 50%, more than 96 million people still voted. Many people realize that their vote only counts for 1 in 96 million. Even if one person’s vote were worth 100 or even 1,000 votes, the odds that his or her vote would sway an election’s outcome are almost zero. In the controversial and contested 2000 election when George W. Bush won one of the closest elections in US history, slightly fewer than 6 million people voted in Florida . Both candidates earned 48.8% of the votes, but a full 537 votes separated the two candidates. Even in one of the closest elections in US history, one person’s vote would not have swayed the outcome. Consequently, if people strictly followed a rational choice model, nobody would vote aspiring to change an election’s outcome. This argument weakens, however, when applied to local elections with fewer eligible voters and potentially more competition.
Many nonvoters abstain because they believe their vote is insignificant, but vote mobilizers argue that these people could strongly affect even the largest election when aggregated. This makes sense, because if 50% of people are voting, then 50% are not voting. If these nonvoters were to have different opinions than the voters, then the elections would not represent the will of the people; the election would only represent the will of the 50% who are voting. Those who desire higher turnout argue that if voter and nonvoter classes differ, then election outcomes would likely change if everyone voted. They argue that high turnout is imperative to ensure that elected officials accurately represent the general population.
Scholarly research, however, refutes this argument for higher turnout. Cirtin, Schickler, and Sides used profiles of the nonvoting class to simulate how Senate elections (from 1994-1998) would be affected if every eligible person voted. They found that only four of the 91 elections would have had different outcomes. They believe this happened because only a small percentage of these elections were competitive and because the nonvoting class did not differ largely from the voting class.
Since an individual’s vote will rarely change an election’s outcome and since most elections would have the same results even with 100% turnout, should low voter turnout even be considered a problem?
Many believe that low voter turnout is a major problem because it reflects the lack of civic participation in the United States. A survey by the Pew Research Center asked, “Some people believe voting by mail should be an option in all elections because it is a good way to increase voter turnout at a time when people are busy with work, family, and travel. Do you think this is a good argument for making voting by mail an option, or not?” 69% of respondents said higher turnout was a good reason to make vote by mail an option, while only 29% said no (2% did not know or refused to respond). Another survey by USA Today asked, “What do you feel is the biggest threat to democracy: low voter turnout, public officials’ ethics, negative political ads, or lobbying?” 64% said low voter turnout was the biggest threat to democracy.
Americans generally desire higher turnout, and consequently support measures to improve voter turnout. There are many possible reasons for this. For instance, low voter turnout reflects political apathy, hurting our government’s legitimacy. However, when people vote, they feel a sense of ownership in their representatives. Additionally, those representatives may be more concerned about the opinions of voting constituents than nonvoting constituents.