This is “Voting”, section 6.1 from the book A Primer on Politics (v. 0.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (831 KB) or just this chapter (121 KB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you. helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

6.1 Voting

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will learn:

  1. Who votes and who doesn’t.
  2. Requirements for voting.
  3. Why people choose to vote or not vote.

Ask yourself this one question: Is it worth your time to vote?

Not everybody thinks so, not all the time. A majority of citizens, in democratic republics around the world, think so when it comes to big elections. Elections for presidents and parliaments attract well over 50 percent of registered voters, all over the world. But fewer people think so in less prominent elections. In the United States, voter turnout drops by at least 10 points in the swing from presidential to non-presidential elections. Across the country, fewer than half the registered voters participate in local elections, which in some ways are the most important elections you face (the president or Congress won’t put in or take out that speed camera at the local intersection). Overall, Americans vote less regularly than many of their counterparts in other republics. In fact, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the United States, the supposed bastion of democracy, ranks 132nd out of 172 nations in voter turnout. The turnout numbers are even worse if you consider not just registered voters but the whole voting-age population. And yet voting is the fundamental act of democratic participation—the thing that makes a nation a true republic. It is the axle on which the wheel of government turns. Especially in the United States—a nation full of people who will tell you it’s the greatest country on earth, etc., etc., why don’t more people vote? So let’s take a moment to explore the question of voting before we ask that question—do you/would you vote?—again.

Who Votes?

The obvious part of the answer is citizens who are old enough. Universally, you have to be a citizen to vote in any country’s elections. In most countries, the minimum age is 18. The minimum is 16 in Cuba, Brazil, Nicaragua and Austria; it’s 17 in the Seychelles and Senegal, 19 in South Korea and 20 in Japan. Eight countries, including Bolivia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Dominica, Djibouti, Fiji, Kuwait and Lebanon, have a 21-year-old minimum.

For much of its history, the voting age in the United States was 21. What changed that was the Vietnam War. Young men and women argued that if they could be drafted and sent to die for their country, they should also be able to vote. The debate actually began during World War II. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had been the Allied commander in the war, spoke in favor of the lower age in 1954. With thousands of young Americans being drafted and sent to Vietnam, and nationwide protests against the war growing, Congress was at last moved to act. In 1970, Congress passed amendments to the Voting Rights Act, lowering the minimum voting age to 18. The states of Oregon, Texas and Idaho sued to block that, and, in 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Oregon v. Mitchell that while the federal government could set the age for federal elections, states could choose minimum ages for their own elections. In March 1971 Congress then passed the 26th amendment (94–0 in the Senate and 401–19 in the House of Representatives), lowering the minimum age to 18. Within four months, three-quarters of state legislatures had approved the amendment, and it became law on July 5, 1971, when signed by President Richard Nixon. Constitutional change doesn’t usually happen that fast.

Young people at that time campaigned hard to win the right to vote in the U.S. Ironically, no group of people votes less than young people do today.

Figure 6.1

[To Come] Voter Turnout by Age Group in the U.S.

The Vietnam era was a high point in youth voting; in 1972, 72.5 percent of young people ages 18–29 participated in the presidential election. It’s been largely downhill from there. In the 2008 election, when 62.1 percent of that age group voted, it was the highest since 1992. And only 48.7 percent of registered voters ages 18–24 voted in 2008.

Clearly, not having the draft and a war staring you in the face probably took away some of the impetus to vote. But what other factors could be impacting voting?

Age and education: While young people aren’t voting as much, older people still vote often. And more-educated people vote more as well. So while 27 percent of those 18–24 who didn’t finish high school voted in 2008, 51.9 percent of those age 65 and up with the same level of education voted. Among those with a bachelor’s degree or more, 70.2 percent of the 18–24 group voted, versus 82 percent of those 65 and up with at least a bachelor’s degree.

What’s different between the age groups? The longer you’re around, the more you get a sense of what matters and how government might affect you. Older people may have houses and careers, and time to think about them, whereas younger people may be working multiple jobs and trying to finish school. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2004 election, 23 percent of 18– to 24-year-old non-voters said they were just too busy.) More educated people may also have a better sense of how elections work, why they matter, how to register and when to vote. More educated people also tend to earn higher incomes, and that’s another group that votes more often. In the 2008 election, 51.9 percent of those with less than $20,000 in household income a year voted, versus 79.8 percent of those with more than $100,000 in household income.

Race also appears to play a role. White and African-American citizens vote more often than do Hispanic- and Asian-American citizens. Among Asian-Americans, 47.6 percent voted in 2008, versus 49.9 percent of Hispanic-Americans (of any race), 64.7 percent of African-Americans and 66.1 percent of white Americans. The difference there may reflect the larger numbers of relatively recent immigrants among Asian and Hispanic citizens.

Why People Vote, and Why They Don’t

So why don’t more people vote, especially in the United States? In Australia, it is illegal not to vote—and you get can fined for not voting—and turnout sometimes reaches 95 percent. On the other hand, turnout also hits 95 percent in the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, where voting is not compulsory.

Many other countries make it easier to vote. In Germany, after you turn 18, you get a card in the mail telling about the next election in which you are eligible to vote. Most U.S states require a two-step process—first you register, some time before the election, and then later you get to vote. In many countries, voter-eligibility lists are taken from existing lists such as income tax or birth records (you turn 18, you can vote). Voter registration has been required to prevent voter fraud, such as voting by people who are no longer living, though it’s worth noting that the U.S. has had little if any voter fraud in the last 50 years.

So making that process easier, such as allowing voters to register on election day, also is predicted to raise turnout. Among U.S. states, only North Dakota does not require registration. Ohio and North Carolina allow same-day registration, while Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Washington, D.C. have some form of same-day registration. But those don’t always have an appreciably higher percentage of voter turnout; in the 2002 election, for example, only about half of North Dakota’s voting-age population bothered to show up at the polls. In 2004 and 2006, however, same-day registration states averaged 10–12 percent higher turnout than traditional registration dates, according to one study. Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington all allow voters to register online. More recently, however, a number of states have attempted to make it harder to vote. States such as Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Georgia enacted photo identification requirements for voters, with legislative sponsors arguing this was needed to prevent voter fraud. Critics argue that such requirements will hurt lower income and minority voters. They tend to vote Democrat; the bills were passed by Republican majorities in those state legislatures. In Pennsylvania, in a court case over the law, state officials couldn’t produce any incidents of voter fraud as evidence.

As for higher or lower turnout in any given election year, correlation is not causality—because two things happen in close proximity doesn’t mean that one is influencing the other. For example, a hot local or statewide election can boost the turnout in one community or state, or a lack of pressing elections on the ballot can depress it. Meanwhile, consider the circumstances in which elections take place. A low point in voter turnout came in 1996, when only about half the country voted and Bill Clinton was re-elected president. The economy was growing and the nation was at peace, so people may have been relatively content. It was the lowest turnout since 1924, when the country was also amid a sustained period of peaceful prosperity. Contentment tends to keep people away from the polls. Contrast that with 2008, when turnout was 10 points higher than in 1996. The nation was involved in two not entirely popular wars, the economy was crashing, and Barack Obama, the Democrat nominee, made a big push for young voters.

People vote when it seems to matter, but they have a lot of other reasons for voting: They vote to show support for the system, an act of patriotism. They vote because they can. People vote to support a candidate, or vote because they don’t like one. They vote to make a statement. They vote because they care about what happens to their neighborhoods and communities.

Some people vote by party. If there’s an R or a D after a candidate’s name on the ballot, that’s who they choose. Here’s a true story from my neighborhood. A few years back, an incumbent Democrat state senator was seeking re-election. She was attractive, well-regarded, in a fairly Democrat-leaning district. The Republicans were unlikely to put forth a serious candidate when they had so little chance of winning.

But one Republican filed. He was a quiet, pleasant guy from my neighborhood, known mostly for looking a bit like Keith Richards and for frequently walking to the local market for a latte. One of my students actually interviewed him—apparently the only person who ever bothered to do so. The candidate informed my student that the Russians had tried to shoot him with a laser rifle (he knew it was the Russians because they’re the only ones with a laser rifle), but that the shot had bounced off his belt buckle. They had tried to kill him because they couldn’t abide the thought of the son of God becoming president of the United States.

This guy didn’t campaign much, but it got out that he was, in fact, mentally ill (although, by all accounts, harmless). Nonetheless, in the general election, he got 30 percent of the vote. That many people, that year, were determined to vote Republican, probably not knowing much about the candidate they had chosen.

The candidate might have had a better-sounding name than his opponent, which also seems to make a difference. I tried to convince a friend of mine to run for judge, but he said his name—Lamb—wouldn’t probably fly with the voters. I then tried to convince him to change his name to “Lamb-of-God” to pick up the religious conservative vote, but he wouldn’t go for that either.

The list of reasons for not voting is a bit longer then reasons why people do vote:

First, voting is not free. It costs time—to actually vote, to become even the slightest bit informed on candidates and issues—and even a little money if you drive to the polling place or stick a stamp on your mail-in ballot. On top of which, you have to register to vote, which, until Motor Voter registration, required you to go to a public library or other public facility and fill out a form. With motor voter, you can easily register when you renew your driver’s license. But either way, you have to take a step to be able to vote.

It’s a longer process than that required in many other countries. On top of that, the United States has lots of elections and very long ballots—lots of races to decide—further complicating voters’ task when they sit down to choose.

In some U.S. states, jury pools are chosen from voter registration lists, so some people do not register to vote so they can avoid jury duty. One study showed that the threat of jury duty reduced voter registration by 11 percent.

People also don’t vote because they feel uninformed. Not having followed politics and elections, they may feel as though they are so uninformed that they would be voting blind. People also may not vote because they don’t like any of the candidates; as a form of protest; for religious reasons; or the classic, traditional excuse: “My vote doesn’t count.”

An Argument for Voting

This is the point where I tell my students, “This is what I think, and I think you should vote.” And, like I also tell my students, you will have to decide for yourself. But most of the arguments against voting don’t make a lot of sense, at least to me.

First, it’s not difficult to become informed enough to make a sensible choice based on what you believe and what matters to you in your own life. Many state election departments send out information on candidates; candidates themselves make substantial effort to contact voters with information. Granted, it’s all biased in favor of the candidate, but it usually tells you something about which way the candidate leans. Looking at which groups endorse candidates can tell us even more. Are they supported by business, labor or environmental groups? And, in the age of the internet, candidates and interest groups provide lots of information about who’s for what and why. You don’t have to be an expert to make an informed vote.

If you don’t like the candidates, find one you do like, or run yourself. And if you do a little research, you should be able to distinguish between the bad and the not-so-bad. We should never expect to agree 100 percent with any candidate.

As a form of protest, it’s one of the weakest. If you’re trying to make a statement by boycotting an election, how can we tell if this is a protest or if you’re just lazy?

Finally, voting gives you the right to complain. If you don’t vote, and you don’t like what government is doing, who can you blame but yourself? That’s because your vote always counts.

At this point, you should be asking, how can that be true? In elections in the U.S., with frequently thousands and millions of voters casting ballots, what difference can one vote make? Sometimes not much, but sometimes a lot. Sometimes elections are very close: In September 1996, in King County, Washington, voters faced a ballot measure to impose a local sales tax to fund a new baseball stadium and keep the Seattle Mariners from fleeing town. The measure failed by 20 votes—you and your friends could have tipped the election one way or the other had you been there to vote. The Mariners subsequently went on a big winning streak and nearly made the World Series (which, for Mariner fans, is about as good as it gets), and in October the state Legislature came up with a new funding package for the stadium. The team’s success helped, but if the vote hadn’t been so close, the Legislature might not have made the moves it did.

And that points to another way in which your vote counts: Margin of victoryThe amount one candidate wins an election by. This is important in determining how much opposition the candidate will see in the following election. matters greatly in electoral outcomes. If a candidate wins by a lot, say, more than 60 percent, she or he is less likely to get serious opposition next time around. Conversely, if the candidate just squeaks by, opponents will be lining up for the next go-round, because that’s a vulnerable candidate. Voting is an aggregate function: It’s the total that matters, not the individual vote. So even if your candidate seems like a safe bet to win, adding to that total helps them in the future. And even if your candidate seems likely to lose, the closer her or she gets, the more likely it is that the candidate you don’t like gets a stronger, better funded opponent the next time around.

Margin of victory clearly matters after the election as well. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, he won with only 43 percent of the popular vote. In part that was because of the third-party candidacy of billionaire H. Ross Perot, who got nearly 19 percent, leaving incumbent President George H.W. Bush with 31 percent. Although later research showed that Perot voters were pretty evenly split between people who would have otherwise voted for Bush or Clinton, so that the outcome would not have changed without Perot in the race, Clinton’s low vote total had an impact on his relations with Congress. Why listen to a president whose popular mandate was clearly so weak? That left the new president with a somewhat rocky road to travel with the legislative branch, and gave Republicans an opening to call for action in the 1994 elections. And in those elections, they took majorities in both the House and the Senate.

If the majority in Congress swings one way or another, or especially if a president wins by a lot, that sends a message that the electorate wants change, and maybe even wants it pointing in one a particular direction. Anyone who’s watched Congress for any length of time will see those results in action; conservative or liberal agendas have more success if elections point toward conservativism or liberalism. And it’s not just who’s in Congress as a result of the elections (although that obviously makes a big difference). The Democrats still held a commanding majority in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 1980 elections, but passed President Reagan’s tax cuts after seeing how well he did in the 1980 vote. And in fact, research shows that, over time, Congress generally votes in accord with the broadly expressed will of the people.

Finally, voting is a unique experience. It is the one time in your life when you can say you are absolutely the equal of everybody else. Your vote counts no more or no less than anybody else’s—you, me, Bill Gates and the president are all on equal footing at the ballot box.

So, now, ask yourself again: Is it worth your time to vote?

Key Takeaways

  • People vote to support the system, to have a say, and to support or oppose a particular candidate.
  • People don’t vote because they say they lack the time, lack motivation, and lack information.
  • Voter turnout varies from year to year and from group to group. Older, richer, more educated people tend to vote more often than do younger, poorer, less educated people.


  1. Is it worth your time to vote? List the reasons why you would or wouldn’t vote in a given election.
  2. Find out what it would take to register voters in your state. Set up a table on campus and see how many people you can convince to register.
  3. Students on campus on how many are registered to vote; how many plan to vote in the next election; and how many voted in the last election. Compare your results with those of national surveys.