By Amanda Zoch
“Turnout in elections in the United States is generally pretty low compared to other parts of the world.”
We met up with The Carter Center’s Avery Davis-Roberts again, this time to discuss voter turnout. In 2016, the U.S. voting-age participation was 55.7%. That’s a high turnout rate for the U.S., but it’s low compared to our peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Belgium, Sweden and Denmark all saw turnout rates of over 80% in their most recent elections.
But high turnout can’t necessarily be chalked up to particularly engaged citizenry. As Davis-Roberts notes, “Some of the countries with the highest turnout rates are those that have compulsory voting. Australia for example, regularly has turnout figures exceeding 90%.”
Australia isn’t alone. According to International IDEA, 27 countries have compulsory voting, which means not voting may come with a penalty (though that’s often weakly enforced). Compulsory voting is found all across the globe, from Argentina and Uruguay to Belgium and Singapore. Others, such as Fiji and Italy, have had compulsory voting and abandoned it.
Compulsory, or universal, voting has never really taken off in the U.S., though the state of Georgia’s 1777 Constitution purported to fine those who didn’t vote, a sanction likely not enforced (see note 45). Some, however, are making the case for universal voting in the U.S., arguing that voting is “a civic responsibility no less important than jury duty.”
Voter registration also affects turnout, or at least how we understand it. The turnout numbers above refer to the percentage of eligible voters who vote, but the number of registered voters may be quite different from the number of eligible voters. In the U.S., plenty of eligible voters aren’t registered voters, so while the 2016 turnout was 55.7% of the voting-age population, it was 86.8% of registered voters. That’s a big difference. In other countries where voters are automatically registered once they become eligible, turnout percentages appear quite similar for both voting-age population and registered voters.
So what about this November? Will the U.S. continue to hover around 55-57% participation or will we see a record turnout amid a pandemic?
We just don’t know. “Past performance,” Davis-Roberts reminds us, “is not an indicator of future events.”
Amanda Zoch is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and policy specialist in NCSL's Elections & Redistricting Program.