A Vigorous and Strong Democracy?

In my last post, I examined increases in voter turnout and concluded that American democracy appeared strong and vigorous.  Critics, however, dispute this claim by comparing U.S. voter turnout to other developed countries.  The comparison typically draws a much less favorable portrait of American democracy.   

So let’s consider that comparison. 

Voter turnout by country

In the 2016 U.S. national election, nearly 55% of the voting age population showed up to vote.  Nevertheless, U.S. turnout lags considerably behind other OECD countries – peer nations with highly developed economies and democratic processes.     

For example, over 80% of the voting age population voted in Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark.  In addition, in their most recent national elections the top 11 countries achieved 70% plus turnout.  Mexico, France, Austria and Germany also exceeded 65%. 

The United States, ranked way down the list at 26th.   By comparison, a failure:  The U.S. democracy is anything but healthy and vital.        

Votes cast in most recent national elections  

Country% of voting age populationPopulation 2020
1. Belgium87.1%11,589,623
2. Sweden82.6110,099,265
3. Denmark80.345,792,202
4. Australia78.9625,499,884
5. South Korea77.9251,269,185
6. Netherlands77.3117,134,872
7. Israel76.108,655,535
8. New Zealand75.654,822,233
9. Finland73.145,540,720
10. Hungary71.659,660,351
11. Norway70.595,421,241
12. Germany69.1183,783,942
13. Austria68.799,006,398
14. France67.9365,273,511
15. Mexico65.97128,932,753
18. England63.2567,886,011
20. Canada62.1237,742,154
26. United States55.70331,002,651
Source:  Pew Research Center

Election laws matter

Are Belgians just better citizens – more willing than others to perform their civic duty?  Probably not.  But Belgium was the first country to make voting mandatory nationwide.  This means Belgians who do not vote encounter fines or additional penalties.  Two other countries in the top 15 also adopted mandatory voting – Australia and Mexico.[1] 

In the top turnout countries, election laws are fashioned to make voting easier. For instance, many countries register their citizens to vote automatically.  Automatic registration removes a burdensome first step in the voting process – voters in the U.S. generally assume that burden. 

In Germany, those reaching 18 years of age or older receive a notification card before upcoming elections.  Sweden encourages all forms of voting including voting by mail, early voting, and second voting, where people who voted early can go to the polls on Election Day and change their vote in person.   

By contrast, a uniform, top-down federal election administrative structure does not exist in the United States.  Rather, the states largely run the show.  For instance, nineteen states administer automatic voter registration.  The remainder implement different approaches including the opportunity to register when applying for or renewing a driver’s license.  Thirty-nine states offer registration on-line, requiring voters to fill out a form and verify eligibility.  Several states authorize Election Day registration, while many others require citizens to register weeks before voting.  In addition, certain states compel voters to show a form of identification at the polls, while others require only a signature.  Nearly all states have early voting options, yet the time periods for early vote vary by state. 

In sum, American federalism encourages experimentation and reflects considerable social and political differences within and across states.  Some states and localities prioritize voter turnout – much like the European countries, while others do not.  For example, the top 6 American states in voter turnout administer relatively liberal election laws – specifically Election Day registration.  Minnesota achieved the highest turnout at nearly 70% of the voting age population.  Next, New Hampshire at 69.1%, Maine 69.4%, Wisconsin 66.2%, Iowa 65.1% and Colorado at 64.6%.   The population in all these states is under 6 million.  While still behind many on the list, turnout levels approach similarly sized countries like Norway, Finland, and New Zealand. 

Implications

After comparing U.S. voter turnout to other OECD nations, it is difficult to celebrate American democracy.  On the key dimension of voter participation, the U.S. trails far behind.  The comparison raises tough questions about election administration and existing barriers to voting.   

Here are three reasons U.S. voter turnout will never rise to levels desired by the critics. 

  1. Americans devotion to strong individualism and expansive liberties.  These values lead to a deep suspicion of government and an enduring preference for decentralized election administration.  As a result, the laws that boost turnout in other countries would spark immediate controversy. Indeed, the chances of compulsory voting in the U.S. are near zero.  Even automatic registration and all mail voting draw cries of government overreach.  
  2. American political parties typically support or oppose voter regulations based on their assessments of electoral advantage. In this age of partisan polarization, electoral incentives assume greater urgency, which makes it more difficult to enact the comprehensive election laws common in the OECD countries. 
  • The United States population is much larger than any other OECD country.  The sheer size and diversity of the population influences the efficiency and effectiveness of election administration – and indeed the likelihood of high turnout.     

Conclusions

Like many other political questions, the “right” answer remains elusive.  Rather, it is a matter of preference.  The OECD countries have considered the tradeoffs and value widespread civic engagement and participation.  They employ their governments to make this happen. 

In the United States, the values of liberty and civic duty collide – there is no consensus for federal action.  As a result, state and local governments pursue election laws that match their citizen preferences.  

Finally, consider this fact.  While voter turnout in the U.S. increased over the past two decades, on average it has decreased in Europe.  Clearly many unique, country specific factors influence turnout.  For this reason, perhaps the proper benchmark to judge a country’s democracy is its own history.  


[1]   Mexico does not enforce compulsory voting. 

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