Courtesy of Occupy Democrats, with over 7,600 likes and 3,100 shares. This meme shows the voter turnout for the 2016 election, and suggests the low turnout is the reason for our woes. This brings up an interesting question; does voter turnout lead to the success of a society, or lack thereof? Does it have bearing on whether or not we can “have nice things”?
Voter Turnout in the 2016 Election
This meme uses a clip from MSNBC, which claims 46.9% didn’t vote in the 2016 election. This would mean the voter turnout was just 53.1%, making it the lowest for a presidential election since 1996. It quotes the United States Election Project as a source. This was likely the correct figure right after the election, but as statistics powerhouse FiveThirtyEight pointed out at the time, these initial reports didn’t include millions of votes that weren’t counted yet. A week after the election, they reported that voter turnout had jumped to 58.6%. After more data came in, the United States Election Project now reports that 60.2% of the voting eligible population voted in the 2016 election. The meme quotes an outdated statistic who’s cited source even disagrees with it.
The 60.2% participation rate means that voter turnout was actually higher than the 58.6% turnout of the 2012 election, which Barack Obama won (and which we can assume Occupy Democrats didn’t lament over turnout percentages). It was slightly lower than the 2008 election, which Obama won with 61.2% participation. However, besides that we’d have to go all the way back to 1968 to find a higher percentage, when Nixon won with 62.5% of eligible voters participating.
Democrat vs. Republican?
Does the voter turnout correlate to whether or not Democrats or Republicans win? It doesn’t appear to. In the last 50 years, the highest turnout saw a Republican win (Nixon), while the lowest saw a Democrat victory (Clinton). However, Obama comes in a close second for highest turnout, and both JFK and Lyndon Johnson exceeded Nixon if we go back beyond 50 years. Reagan, perhaps the most popular Republican president over that time frame, saw just 54.2% and 55.2% participation in his victories. It seems little can be concluded by this.
What about each state? Does higher voter turnout correlate to blue or red states? Again, it doesn’t appear to. In the 2016 election, Minnesota (a blue state) had the highest turnout at 74.8%. But, Hawaii (an even bluer state) had the lowest, at just 43%. Some red states, like Texas (51.6%) had low turnout, while others like Montana (64.3%) had relatively high turnouts. Similarly, blue states saw huge variability. Some had turnouts well above the national average, while the largest, New York (57.3%) and California (58.4%) trailed.
The factors associated with the highest state turnouts were being a “swing state” and having laws allowing voter registration on election day, according to the researchers at Nonprofit Vote.
Compared With Other Countries
How does the US compare to other countries with voter turnout? Does “having nice things” correlate globally with voting? A recent Pew study found that the US trails most developed countries in voter turnout. However, Pew uses 55.7% as the 2016 voter turnout, where the US Elections Project cited above claims 60.2%. Why the discrepancy? Pew takes the percentage of “voting-age population”, while the USEP uses “voting eligible population”. The distinction is important, particularly in the US, as there are many voting age residents who aren’t eligible to vote. Non-citizens aren’t eligible to vote, for instance, nor are prisoners or convicted felons, despite being “voting age”. Since the US has a higher number of adult non-citizens and much higher amount of prisoners and convicts than most other developed nations, this would skew the results. Pew acknowledges this, but since they don’t have similar data for other countries, they use voting-age population in their study.
If Pew took the percentage of eligible voters number of 60.2%, the US would be close to Canada and many countries in Western Europe, looking at their chart below. (Chart note: Belgium has mandatory voting laws, which explains its high percentage).
Even if the US has slightly lower voter turnout, so what? Look at the country at the very bottom (not Turkey, they’re listed with no data). It’s Switzerland! One of the most prosperous and most democratic nations in the world, yet they have among the lowest voter turnout. Also below the United States is Luxembourg and Japan, two countries that also have “nice things”.
In fact, if we look at the top 10 richest countries in the world, 4 of them place low on the voter turnout list (United States, Ireland, Switzerland and Luxembourg). Yet, only one country (Norway) is listed toward the top. The other 5 (United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Brunei, Singapore and Qatar) are all tiny, mostly oil rich countries and aren’t considered in Pew’s developed countries list. It appears that “having nice things” has little bearing on voting turnout.
Conversely, we can find many destitute countries with high voter turnout. Venezuela, for instance, had an 80.6% turnout in their 2012 election. This would place them higher than every country on Pew’s list besides Sweden and Belgium, and Venezuela doesn’t have compulsory voting laws. To say things didn’t work out well for them would be an understatement of the highest order.
Ironically, the much maligned Russia also has a higher voter turnout rate than the US at 65.3%.
Here’s a partial list of other less than desirable countries with high voter turnout (note: some of these have compulsory voting laws):
- Angola- 90.4%
- Belarus- 87.2%
- Bolivia- 91.9%
- Iran- 72.7%
- Kazakhstan- 95.2%
- Philippines- 92%
- Rwanda- 97.5%
Clearly, the correlation between voting turnout and “nice things” is specious.
Putting Voter Turnout in Context
The most important element of voting is that the population be free to engage in it. This means no irrational or arbitrary restrictions, and no intimidation or force used to coerce the people’s vote. Once that freedom is granted and protected, it appears that the degree to which a society votes means relatively little. Far more important, in this page’s opinion, is the ideas and culture that prevail in a society. Bad ideas and culture lead to bad choices in politics and bad governments. Good ideas lead to better choices and better societies. Blaming voter turnout is a scapegoat for what really causes misery, and conversely, “nice things”.