If judged by voter enthusiasm, democracy is struggling.
According to the World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report, election turnout is declining across the world. Over the last 25 years, the average global voter turnout rate dropped by more than 10%.
The following chart shows average turnout for legislative elections held from 1950 to 2015. Such elections include, for instance, voting for parliament members in the UK and representatives for the US Congress. The number of elections in a typical year has increased over time. In 2015, there were nearly 50 national legislative elections held in 46 countries across the world.
The drop-off in global voter turnout, which began around 1990, coincides with the fall of the Soviet Union and the introduction of many new electoral democracies. But lower voting rates in these nascent democratic countries does not explain the decline of voting rates over the last several decades. An analysis by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) finds that though voter turnout was initially lower in post-communist countries (pdf), both established European democracies and post-communist countries have seen significant declines over the last several decades.
In fact, voter turnout rates are down just about everywhere. IDEA’s research also shows that, since the 1980s, turnout declined in each region of the world—Europe and Oceania saw the largest declines, while Asia and the Americas the least. Perhaps most surprisingly, the researchers find that the decline is just as large for democracies with free and fair elections as it for those that the election watchdog Freedom House designates as “not free.”
Researchers of voter turnout rates find that the factors leading to the decline are complex. Some component of the decrease is likely due to benign factors such as the increasing enfranchisement of women and lowered voting ages (young people and women tend to vote less). But apathy and decreasing confidence in the democratic process are also important contributors.
Trust in government is falling across the democratic world. It’s no surprise that voter turnout is falling with it.