Working right?

isomin at isomin at
Tue Nov 8 11:31:33 PST 2005

There is in fact a large literature on the empirical causes of low voter turnout. It has a large variety of causes including complex registration requirements in some states, declining mobilization efforts by interest groups and parties (though there was an increase in 2004), and perhaps most important, the sheer number of elections in the US relative to other democracies. The more elections there are, the less likely it is that people will turn out for all of them. Lack of faith in the system is only one of many causes and probably nowhere near the most important. Moreover, measures of trust in government do not show lower trust in the US than in most other democracies.

The research also shows that those who don't vote have political preferences pretty similar to those who do, so the impact of nonvoting on electoral outcomes is very small. Furthermore, there is little if any evidence that higher voter turnout (at least within the range of variation exhibited by real-world democracies) leads to better policy outcomes or greater political accountability. For a good survey of the evidence on the causes of turnout, see Ruy Teixeira's book, The Disappearing American Voter. 

The one other democracy that has turnout levels similar to the US is Switzerland, which is similar to the US in having large numbers of different types of elections. Switzerland's government is also considered one of the best run, most responsive, and most successful in the world. I'm not saying that that is BECAUSE of low turnout, but low turnout certainly hasn't prevented it. 

There are problems with the COnstitution, but I don't think that low voter turnout should be high on the list, assuming, indeed, that it's a problem at all. 

Ilya Somin
Assistant Professor of Law
George Mason University School of Law
3301 Fairfax Dr.
Arlington, VA 22201
ph: 703-993-8069
fax: 703-993-8202
e-mail: isomin at
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