US voter turnout recently soared but lags behind many peer countries

Officials in Seoul, South Korea, count ballots from the May 2017 presidential election.
Officials in Seoul, South Korea, count ballots from the presidential election in May 2017. (Jin Chung/Getty Images)

Voter turnout in the 2020 U.S. general election soared to levels not seen in decades, fueled by the bitter campaign between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and eased by pandemic-related changes to the nation’s election laws. More than 158.4 million people voted in that election, according to The Pew Research Center’s official state returns amount to 62.8% of voting age, using Census Bureau estimates of the 2020 voting-age population.

The increase in voting in 2020 follows an exceptionally high turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, with approximately 47.5% of the voting age population – and 51.8% of voting age citizens – They went to the polls.

This year, some political analysts are predicting another heavy turnout in this month’s midterms. According to a recent poll by the center, 72% of registered voters say they are “very” or “extremely” motivated to vote this year, and 65% say it “really matters” which party wins control of Congress — a roughly equal level. In preparation for the 2018 vote.

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, the Pew Research Center has decided to re-examine the occasional comparisons of US voter turnout with those of other countries.

For our comparison group, we started with the other 37 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of mostly developed countries, mostly democracies. For greater diversity, we have added to this group the six current candidates for OECD membership (Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Peru and Romania), as well as six other economically significant electoral democracies (India, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, Taiwan and Uruguay). , for even 50 countries.

Political scientists often define voter turnout as votes received divided by the estimated number of entitled to voting But estimates of eligible voters are difficult or impossible to find for many states. So to compare turnout calculations internationally, we used two different denominators – the estimated voting age population and the total number of registered voters, as they are available for most countries.

Using the two denominators, we calculated the voter turnout for each country’s last national election on October 31, 2022, except in cases where the election was for a largely ceremonial position (such as a president in a parliamentary system) or for the European Parliament. Friends, as the turnout is significantly lower in such elections. In countries that elect both a legislature and a head of state, we used the elections that attracted the most voters. Voting-age turnout is based on estimates of each country’s voting-age population (VAP) by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). Registered voter turnout is derived from each state’s reported registration data. (In some states, IDEA’s VAP estimates are lower than the reported number of registered voters due to methodological differences.)

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For most countries, we collected vote totals from national election authorities or statistical agencies. For the US, which does not have a central electoral authority, we compiled the total votes received in the 2020 presidential election from each country’s election office, and checked them against data collected by the Clerk’s Office of the US House of Representatives (read more about the methodology). We also collected data on Records are reported from the US Census Bureau.

One unknown factor, however, is how numerous changes to the state’s voting law since 2020 will affect voter turnout. While some states have eliminated early voting, absentee or mail-in voting, and other rule changes that made it easier to vote in 2020 — or adopted new rules that make voting more difficult or inconvenient — other states have expanded access to the ballot.

Even if predictions of a higher-than-usual voter turnout come true, the United States will likely still lag behind many of its peers in the developed world in voter turnout among the voting-age population. In fact, when you compare the percentage of the voting age population in the 2020 presidential election to the last national elections in 49 other countries, the US ranks 31st – between Colombia (62.5%) and Greece (63.5%).

Chart showing the voting percentage of the US voting age population

The center looked at the results of recent national elections for 50 countries, mostly with developed economies and solid democratic traditions. The clear winner of the vote was Uruguay: in the second and decisive round of the presidential elections in that country in 2019, 94.9% of the estimated voting age population and 90.1% registered The voters voted.

Uruguay’s voting age percentage was followed by Turkey (89% in the 2018 presidential election) and Peru (83.6% in last year’s presidential election). The five countries with the highest voting-age turnout all have presidential, as opposed to parliamentary, systems of government, and four of the five have—and enforce—laws that make voting compulsory.

In Switzerland, by contrast, only 36.1% of the voting-age population turned out in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the lowest of the 50 countries in our analysis. But perhaps this has less to do with voter apathy than demographics: more than a quarter of Switzerland’s permanent resident population (25.7%) are foreign nationals, and therefore ineligible to vote in Swiss elections.

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When the voting percentage is calculated as part of registered voters, the voting percentage in Switzerland rises to 45.1% – still the second lowest among the 50 countries we examined. In Luxembourg, by comparison, the index change makes a dramatic difference: the tiny country’s turnout of voting age was only 48.2% in the 2018 parliamentary elections, but 89.7% of registered voters went to the polls. Why? Almost half of the population (47.1%) are foreigners.

These examples illustrate how comparisons of voter turnout between states are rarely clean and often complicated. Another complicating factor, aside from demographics, is how states register their voters.

In many countries, the national government takes the lead in getting people’s names on the electoral roll – either by automatically registering them after they become eligible (as in Sweden or Japan, for example) or by aggressively encouraging them to do so (as in the United Kingdom). In such states, there is often little difference in turnout between registered voters and the voting-age population as a whole.

In other countries – notably the United States – it is largely up to individual voters to register themselves. And the US is unusual in that voter registration is not the job of a single national agency, but of individual states, counties and cities. This means the rules can vary considerably depending on where the prospective voter lives.

It also means that there is no single, authoritative source for how many people are registered to vote in the U.S. The Census Bureau estimates that in 2020, 168.3 million people were registered to vote in 2020—or at least said they were. Even so, this figure represents only about two-thirds of the entire voting-age population (66.7 %) and 72.7% of citizens of voting age. By comparison, 91.8% of the UK population of voting age registered to vote in that country’s parliamentary elections in 2019; the corresponding rates were 89.1% in Canada, 94.1% in New Zealand and 90.7% in Germany for the last national elections of those countries.

In the US, there is a huge gap between voting age turnout (62.8% in 2020) and registered voter turnout (94.1% that year). In fact, registered voters in the US are much more of a self-selected group than in other countries—already highly likely More to point out that in most cases they bothered to register themselves.

A map showing that in many countries registration to vote is automatic

Some countries are trying to reduce this gap. As of last January, 19 states and the District of Columbia register people to vote automatically (unless they choose to opt out) when they interact with their state Department of Motor Vehicles or other designated state agencies. Three more countries are on track to fully implement automatic registration in the coming years. And North Dakota does not require voter registration at all.

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Another complicating factor for comparing international turnout: According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 27 countries (and one Swiss canton, or member state of the Swiss Confederation) have laws that make voting compulsory, including 12 of the states. 50 countries reviewed here. In total, 14 of those 27 states actively enforce their laws, with penalties including fines, inability to access certain public services, or even imprisonment.

It is not clear how much such laws do. On the one hand, four of the five states with the highest turnout (whether measured as a share of the total voting-age population or registered voters) have and enforce such laws. In the eight states surveyed that enforce mandatory voting laws, voting-age turnout averaged 78.2% in the last election, compared to 57.6% in the four states that have such laws on the books, but are not actively enforcing them. But in the remaining 38 states and Switzerland, where there are no national mandatory voting laws, turnout averaged 65 percent.

Although there are not many examples, there is an indication that too many elections in too short a time can dampen voter enthusiasm. Consider Bulgaria, which has had four parliamentary elections in the past 18 months, as the leading parties have repeatedly tried and failed to form a stable governing coalition. The turnout was 58.3% of Bulgarians of voting age in the first elections (April 2021), but steadily decreased to 45.8% in the last elections (45.8% earlier this month). And with a divided parliament still unable to agree on a new government, weary Bulgarians may still have to return to the polls sooner rather than later.

Israelis had to go to the polls four times between April 2019 and March 2021 before lawmakers were able to agree on a governing coalition; Voter turnout among Israelis of voting age rose from 74.6% in the first election to 77.9% in the third election, before falling back to 73.7% in the March 2021 vote. But the coalition formed almost three months after those elections fell apart barely a year later, and Israel is holding another election Today, November 1.


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