Why does turnout in USA elections tend to be relatively low? (Short Essay)

It is paradoxical that in the country that is the world’s greatest advocate of democracy, turnout at elections is among the lowest in the democratic world, particularly as other forms of participation, such as pressure group activity, are high. High voter abstention in US elections can be explained using a number of simple terms such as democratic overload, a lack of choice, a decline in partisanship, voter apathy and hapathy.

Firstly, in most states, voters have to makes some effort to get registered to vote, but it is now easier, as the Help America Vote Act 2002 allows same-day registration and early voting in many states. There are also registration drives to mobilise the vote, suggesting that the registration process does not fully explain why voters do not register wand why registered voters do not turn out to vote. Other explanations include democratic overload and voter fatigue; the huge number of elections or a wide range of posts from the president down to local civic officials and the resulting sense of permanent campaigning cause voters to switch off. Furthermore, media-dominated campaigns i.e. the politics of sound bites, photo-opportunities and negative advertising can alienate voters.

In addition to these factors, candidates may fail to impress voters, as in the 2000 campaign, characterised as ‘Bore v Gush’. Parties may be perceived as uninspiring, failing to offer a clear choice of values and principles meaning that the voters are presented with a lack of choice. Also, a decline in partisanship means that people may be more likely to abstain from voting because they do not feel a strong attachment to either party. Another significant factor is voter apathy and cynicism – some voters feel that voting does not make any difference to their loves, and that remote, lobbyist-dominated government is not responsive to their views. Cynicism has been increased by dissatisfaction with presidential performance and political scandals. Alternatively, some voters are so content that they do not need to vote. This is known as hapathy and in this case it is satisfaction, not alienation, which reduces turnout.

Voter turnout in US presidential elections tends to be relatively low for many reasons. Causes of voter abstention in the US include voter registration, media-dominated campaigns, cynicism and a decline in partisanship. The causes of relatively high US abstention levels are explained by multiple factors relating to the electoral and political systems; it is difficult to understand why citizens do not vote without explaining the apathy and cynicism present in US politics.

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