Some analysts believe the US 2020 presidential election will have the highest voter turnout in modern history. That’s moving in the right direction because the US is not very good at getting people to the polls.
Only about 56% of eligible American voters cast a ballot in the last election (around 27% each for Trump and Clinton). By contrast, in Belgium, 90% of registered voters showed up at the polls for national elections last year.
Why are US voters so bad at showing up on election day?
Let’s take a look.
why Belgium voter turnouts are so high
Voting in Belgium is compulsory. Skip voting, and you’ll get fined. This means voters may not necessarily be engaged in politics–like we would expect in voluntary-vote countries–but, nonetheless, they’re forced to participate, however superficially.
Shifting to a compulsory voting model in the US could mean that the massive effort to reach out to voters for registration could be shifted to a focus on issues.
demographics of non voters
In the US, the biggest determiner of voting behavior is class: nearly half the people who don’t vote have family incomes below $30,000.
Nonvoters are also more likely to be young, Hispanic or Asian-American.
A significant number of US voters can’t participate in the primaries, which means these voters are not helping to decide who will get the party nomination. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia hold closed primaries for presidential primaries.
NOTE: In a closed party is people may vote in primary only if they are registered members of that party prior to election day.
Yet, according to a Gallup poll, about 45% of Americans don’t identify with a political party.
That means 45% of voters are either banned from voting during the primaries (New Jersey is an example) or they’re forced to chose someone before they’ve committed to him/her.
voter identification laws
In 2016, 4% of registered voters did not vote because of “registration problems.”
Some states have strict voter identification laws that require showing government-issued identification in order to vote. These rules were put into place in order to address voter fraud (multiple voting by one person, for example). Yet, 11% of US citizens – or more than 21 million Americans – do not have government-issued ID.
These voters are disproportionately low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Such voters more frequently have difficulty obtaining ID, because they can’t afford it or can’t get the documents that they require.
NOTE: In-person voting fraud is actually super rare. A recent study found that, since 2000, there were only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation – the only type of fraud that photo IDs could prevent–in over 1 billion ballots.
voting by convicted felons
The voting rights of felons vary from state to state. In Vermont and Maine, felons never lose their voting rights; in some states, after a felon is released he or she either automatically get their rights reinstated. In others, he or she needs to apply to have voting rights reinstated.
These rules disproportionately affect black Americans. According to the Sentencing Project “1 of every 13 African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement laws, vs. 1 in every 56 non-black voters.”
why do we vote on Tuesday
Voting is always held on a Tuesday in November.
The organization Why Tuesday? explains that, “In 1845, before Florida, California, and Texas were states or slavery had been abolished, Congress needed to pick a time for Americans to vote. We were an agrarian society. We traveled by horse and buggy. Farmers needed a day to get to the county seat, a day to vote, and a day to get back, without interfering with the three days of worship. So that left Tuesday and Wednesday, but Wednesday was market day. So, Tuesday it was.”
Now, people may not be able to take time off during the week to vote. Some states are beginning to open polls days early, allowing weekend voting, but most still don’t.
does it really matter: electoral college problems
2016 was the second presidential election in the past five presidential elections in which the votes of the majority of the American people have been overruled by the electoral college.
President Trump received 306 electoral college votes to Secretary Clinton’s 232 yet Secretary Clinton won the popular vote with 65,853,516 votes to President Trump’s 62,984,825 votes. While the electoral college makes the 2016 election look like a solid victory for President Trump, in reality, he received three million fewer votes than Secretary Clinton.
Why vote when it doesn’t count?