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Participation in Elections

Electoral participation rates depend on many factors, including the type of electoral system, the social groupings to which voters belong, the voters’ personalities and beliefs, their places of residence, and a host of other idiosyncratic factors.

The level and type of election have a great impact on the rate of electoral participation. Electoral turnout is greater in national than in state or provincial elections, and greater in the latter than in local elections. If local elections are held concurrently with provincial or national elections, generally a higher voter turnout is achieved than for nonconcurrent elections. Whether an election is partisan or nonpartisan also affects turnout, as fewer people participate in nonpartisan elections. Supporters of political parties vote more often than those without a partisan identification. Participation is also usually greater in candidate elections than in noncandidate elections such as referenda. There is evidence that elections based on proportional representation have higher electoral turnouts than majority or plurality elections. Voter turnout tends to be depressed in noncompetitive or safe electoral districts and elevated in competitive ones. The perceived closeness of an electoral contest and the degree of ideological polarization between parties or candidates can affect the competitiveness of the election and consequently its turnout. The frequency of elections is also related to voter participation, as fewer people tend to participate in countries where elections are more frequent.

Technicalities in the electoral law may disenfranchise many potential voters. For example, people who change their legal residence may temporarily lose their vote because of residence requirements for voters in their new electoral district. Complicated voter-registration procedures, combined with a high level of geographic mobility, significantly reduce the size of the active electorate in the United States, whereas in many other countries the size of the electorate is maximized by government-initiated registration immediately prior to an election. Voter registration in the United States is largely left to the initiative of individuals and political parties, though attempts to increase voter registration were made in the 1990s through the implementation of “motor-voter laws,” which allowed citizens to register to vote when they received or renewed their driver’s licenses.

Relatively low levels of electoral participation are associated with low levels of education, occupational status, and income. Those groups in society that have been most recently enfranchised also tend to vote at lower rates. For a significant period of time in the 20th century, women voted less frequently than men, though the difference had been erased by the end of the century in most countries. The rates of participation of racial minorities are generally lower than those of majority groups, and members of the working class vote less frequently than members of the middle class. In many countries, participation by young people is significantly lower than that of older people.

The failure of certain types of people to vote in elections has important implications. Most analyses have found that if all eligible voters cast ballots, the balance of electoral power would favour the recently enfranchised and less-privileged members of society.

A small group of people are conscientious nonvoters. Others, perceiving the vote more as an instrument of censure than of support, may not vote because they are satisfied with the current government. This group of voluntary nonvoters is also small, however. In fact, nonvoters generally are less satisfied with the political status quo than are voters. The vote is a rather blunt and ineffectual instrument for expressing dissatisfaction, and nonvoting is more likely to be symptomatic of alienation from the political system than of satisfaction with it.

A number of random factors influence individual participation in specific elections. Election campaigns vary in their intensity. A crisis atmosphere may induce a large number of people to vote on one occasion, whereas on another the chance to vote for an extremist candidate may increase the participation of the normally uninterested. Even the weather can affect election turnout.

Voter participation varies from country to country. For example, approximately half of the voting-age population participates in presidential elections in the United States. In contrast, many European countries have participation rates exceeding 80 percent. Even within Europe, however, participation varies significantly. For example, post-World War II Italy has averaged around 90 percent, whereas less than 40 percent of the electorate participates in elections in Switzerland. Research has suggested a long-term decline in turnout at national elections in western democracies since the 1970s; it seems most likely that this is a consequence of partisan dealignment (i.e., a weakening of partisan identification), the erosion of social cleavages based on class and religion, and increasing voter discontent.