Evaluating Democracy by Voter Turnout

As we edge closer to the fall elections, let’s consider this question:  What will voter turnout be in November?  The answer offers important clues about the quality of elections and the health of our democracy.  

Judging elections and democracy

It would be difficult to evaluate an election without knowing how many citizens participated.  Just as TV programs, movies, internet sites, and sporting events are evaluated by the size of their audiences, citizen participation is an important marker of successful elections. 

If turnout is low, for example, citizens may be expressing dissatisfaction with the candidates, the parties, or both.    More troubling, low turnout may signal mistrust in democratic processes or widespread alienation from the political system. 

Alternatively, if turnout is high, citizens accept candidate choices and are committed to the principal of popular control over government.

In short, from turnout we can extrapolate the quality of elections and satisfaction with democratic processes.  

Calculating turnout

There are two measures of voter turnout.[i]  The first uses voting age population (VAP).  The number of people that voted is divided by the voting age population – everyone in the country that is 18 years of age or older.    

A concern with this formulation is not everyone 18 plus years of age can vote.  Some may be non-citizens who are not eligible – you must be a citizen.  Others are in prison and several states do not allow felons to vote.  And after incarceration, restoration of voting rights include a significant waiting period, judicial proceedings, and fines. 

During the past three decades, non-citizen and felon groups have grown faster than the rate of population.  This group of ineligibles inflates the denominator of the VAP measures, which in turn reduces turnout percentages.         

Political scientists recognized this problem and proposed an alternative measure called Voting Eligible Population (VEP).   VEP divides the number of voters by the number of eligible voters, which excludes non-citizens and felons.  This correction decreases the size of the denominator.  Consequently, turnout rates computed for only those eligible to vote are significantly higher than voting age calculations.   

The Figure below traces VAP and VEP across the past 18 presidential contests.  VAP reveals one election where turnout did not reach 50% – in 1996 Senator Bob Dole challenged incumbent Bill Clinton.  This low point – the lowest in the VAP series at 49%, caused notable concern among election observers.  If more than half of the public stays at home, what does this say about the election, about voter choices, about democracy? 

More alarming, 1996 was not an outlier. Since 1960, turnout declined for nearly every election – exception 1992[ii], and the steady downward trajectory foreshadowed still lower turnout.            

Data sources:  United States Elections Project & Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections

Now let’s examine VEP.  While 1996 remains a low point, VEP shows 52% of eligible voters participated.  That paints a much different picture than 49%. 

The disparities between VAP and VEP in fact grow larger over the years – the number of ineligibles rose dramatically in the 1980s, 1990s and into 2000s.  Since 2000, the average VEP is just over 60%, approaching levels not seen since the 1960s.   

Bottom line

When thinking about the health of our democracy, pay attention to the different measures of voter turnout.  VEP presents a more favorable view of citizen participation and by extension democratic processes like elections. 

In addition, VEP reminds us that the U.S. constitution and state governments determine eligibility – not everyone that lives in the United States and pays taxes can vote.  The history of voting illustrates a gradual expansion of the electorate – specifically the addition of 15th, 19th and 26th amendments.  Yet the electorate can shrink as well expand.  The parties constantly battle over who votes, advancing the franchise for some groups while contesting it for others.  States enact new voting restrictions including photo ID requirements and registration conditions.  Expect the battles to continue.  After all, who turns out determines who wins.     

Finally, while millions of citizens may dislike current office holders and demand change, by using conventional democratic institutions (the vote) to express their preferences they effectively validate the political system.  Heavy turnout challenges incumbents and dominant political interests.  But it does not generally threaten democracy as we know it. 

Low turnout however does.   Low turnout may reflect deep hostilities toward traditional political institutions, including democratic activities like voting.  Unwilling to participate in a process considered corrupt and unfair, a large number of citizens may simply stay at home.  Chances are these citizens are concentrated in certain demographic groups, especially the poor and young.  Low turnout can then lead to unequal representation. 

However, since 2000, VEP turnout figures are impressive and approaching 1960s levels.  Moreover, the 2018 midterm elections produced the highest VEP turnout since 1912.  Thus, based on overall turnout figures, our democracy appears alive and vigorous.      


[i]  Another calculation for turnout is the number of voters divided by registered voters.  States often report turnout as percentage of registered voters.  There are several problems associated with this calculation including significant differences in state registration laws.  

[ii]  The spike in 1992 is noteworthy.  It offers clues about the factors that increase turnout.  A relative newcomer Bill Clinton challenged the incumbent George H. W. Bush.  Bush, the former Vice President under Reagan, enjoyed exceptional public approval after the Gulf War and appeared unbeatable.  However, a sluggish economy provided an opening for Clinton and attracted the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot.  Perot’s entry – and considerable success as a presidential candidate – increased interest in the campaign and produced a competitive and entertaining contest.  Fresh candidates, poor economic conditions, substantial third-party contenders, and close contests mobilize voters.

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