2020’s record voter turnout in the US is still lower than many other countries

More people voted than ever before and its still not nearly as many as in other rich countries. Why?
More people voted than ever before and its still not nearly as many as in other rich countries. Why?
Image: REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
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At least 158.8 million people voted in this year’s US presidential election.

That’s some 20 million more than the 137.5 million Americans who voted in 2016, and 25 million more than the 132.9 million who voted in 2012. The big difference in this election was that close to 102 million people voted early—either in person or by mail.

(These are provisional tallies provided by the United States Election Project, which is run by Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at University of Florida.)

While the final voter turnout count won’t be official until each state has certified every ballot and resolved outstanding disputes (which, according to the US Constitution, must happen by Dec. 8), we already know that Americans turned out to vote in record numbers this year, which is good news. And yet, those numbers are still far below voter turnout in other major rich countries.

How does US voter turnout compare to other countries?

Pew Research Center conducted an analysis of turnout rates in the most recent national elections of 35 countries who are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of self-described democratic and market-oriented economies. In Pew’s analysis of votes cast as a percentage of the voting age population (VAP), the US places 30th out of 35 nations for which data are available.

Pew found that the highest turnout rates as a share of voting-age population were in Turkey (89%), Sweden (82.1%), Australia (80.8%), Belgium (77.9%), and South Korea (77.9%). Meanwhile, only Slovenia, Latvia, Chile, Luxembourg, and Switzerland had lower voter turnout as a percentage of VAP in their last major elections than the US did in 2016.

Why Americans don’t vote (relatively speaking)

Why don’t more eligible Americans vote? A major reason is that the electoral system is seen as difficult to navigate, meaning that a lot of people avoid it or get it wrong.

Unlike in countries such as Sweden or Germany, which automatically register eligible citizens when they reach voting age, the process to register to vote in many US states can be onerous. People have to figure out how and by when to register in order to have their votes counted; only 21 states and Washington DC offer same-day voter registration.

Election day is held on a Tuesday, so unlike in countries that hold their elections on weekends or make them national holidays, Americans who want to vote may have to take time off work to do it. And we’re not just talking about a few minutes; according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank within the New York University School of Law, “some 3 million voters waited 30 minutes or more to cast their ballot” in the 2018 midterm elections. “Many of these voters were concentrated in the southeastern United States, home to large shares of nonwhite voters.”

While in most states—but not all—people can request a main-in ballot if they don’t want to vote in person, many voters, and especially voters of color, say they don’t know how vote-by-mail actually works. This year Black voters and other voters of color are more likely to be voting by mail for the first time. They may make mistakes when filling their absentee ballots out, which could help explain why they “frequently have their ballots rejected at a higher rate than white votes,” writes FiveThirtyEight analyst Kaleigh Rogers.

A final but major barrier to higher voter turnout is American voters’ distrust and lack of understanding of who they’re voting for and why they vote, according to a FiveThirty Eight analysis. Analysts there describe non-voters or irregular voters’ “sense that the candidates are too flawed to be worth voting for, or that the system is rigged, or can’t be fixed by voting.” Because of the unique nature of the US electoral system, in which a candidate can earn the most individual votes but not become president if they lose the electoral college, some voters living in non-swing states may feel like their votes don’t matter.

This year, because of Covid-19, states have made it easier to vote. Many mailed applications for absentee ballots (or absentee ballots) automatically to all registered voters; a few allowed ballots to come in after election day in case of USPS delays; and most said that voters either didn’t need an excuse or could use coronavirus as an excuse to vote by mail. Analyzing this year’s voting patterns in detail would be premature, but the high overall turnout could be a sign that when voting is made easier, more people will vote. And if that’s the case, the US should be thinking about how to make these changes permanent.