Role of Diminishing Return on Voter Turnout


Role of Diminishing Marginal Return on Voter Turnout

This paper looks at the effects of diminishing marginal returns on voter turnout by comparing voter turnout in various countries. The paper will look at countries with both high and low voter turnout and attempt to explain the differences in the importance of the vote in explaining the differences.

Voter Turnout in Established and Less-Established Democracies

While the leaders in turnout during the past few decades have been mainly new democracies, when one looks at broader figures there does appear to be a difference in turnout between “established democracies” and “less-established democracies.

Political scientist Arend Lijphart, categorized established democracies as all countries that are democratic now, and have been democratic for the last 20 years, and which have a population of at least a quarter of a million people (International IDEA, 2000).

A. Discussion of Data from Established Democracies vs. Less-Established Democracies

At the time of his research, the overall average turnout in the post-war period for Lijphart’s 36 established democracies is 73% — a sharp contrast with the average of 59% for the remaining 136 countries. Nevertheless, as shown in Table 1, turnout rates in both established democracies, and the rest of the world have been uniting over time.



Key: VAP = voting age population

SOURCE: International IDEA (2000). International IDEA Voter Turnout. IDEA Newsletter, Vol. 4.

If we assess elections by the environment of political rights and civil liberties in which they are held (as seen in Table 2) then we see that the 353 elections held in countries that were ranked as “free” had average turnout rates of 72%. The 41 elections in “not free” countries gave rise to a rate of 63%, yet the lowest turnout rates, averaging 59%, are found in “partly free” countries.


Key: VAP = voting age population no. = number of elections

FH = Freedom House rating of political rights and civil liberties

SOURCE: International IDEA (2000). International IDEA Voter Turnout. IDEA Newsletter, Vol. 4.

As Table 3 demonstrates, over the last three decades voter participation in elections held in “free” countries has slowly declined — from a high of 74% in the 1970s to 71% in the 1990s. Conversely, elections held in “not free” countries have demonstrated a marked rise in voter turnout over the past three decades — advancing from a low of 51% in the 1970s to 65% in the 1990s. Elections held in “partly free” countries did have higher turnout between 1970 and 1990, but since then they have fallen to a low of 57%.


Key: VAP = voting age population

SOURCE: International IDEA (2000). International IDEA Voter Turnout. IDEA Newsletter, Vol. 4.

B. The Principles of Voting and How It Affects Nations

Voting is the fundamental way that citizens exercise the right to self-government. Voter turnout is the basic measure of how many people are exercising this right. Through voting, individuals express their desires and set priorities for less poverty, more jobs, a cleaner environment, less crime, and better education. When people vote, they fulfill an opportunity that few people have had throughout history, and for which people in this country and others have died for.

Voter turnout is affected by several factors, including the social and economic mix of the electorate, the perceived importance of the election and, the impact of a candidate’s campaign, and so on. One of the most important factors involved in voter turnout, however, is the sense that a vote counts.

The electoral system in some countries may discourage voter turnout by making people feel that their votes do not matter. Some electoral systems maintain that the majority of seats are “safe” and in them, supporters of minority parties will rarely see their candidate elected. Even supporters of the incumbent party in a particular seat may not vote because their party has already amassed sufficient votes to win the election by a comfortable margin.

Comparison of the United States and Other Countries

While Americans are proud of free elections, they often fail to turn out to vote in large numbers. Research shows that voter turnout in American elections typically falls well below that of other Western democracies. Many Americans do not vote because of legal restrictions and structural reasons, such as registration requirements, complicated ballots and issues, and too frequent elections compared to many other industrialized democracies. And many people fail to vote simply because they feel their vote makes no difference.

Statistics show that those who do vote tend to be better educated, wealthier, and older than those who tend not to vote. People have varying opinions about whether low voter turnout is a serious problem. Some observers argue that low voter turnout is a sign of a satisfied electorate. Others see low voter turnout as a threat to representative government.

A. Voter Turnout in the U.S.

Voter turnout is the rate by which people vote in elections. The simplest way to calculate an election’s turnout rate is to compare the actual number of voters with the voting-age population. Compared to other industrialized representative democracies, the United States has a low voter turnout. For example, voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections remains around 50% of the total population of eligible voters. In off-year gubernatorial elections (election years without a presidential election), turnout can drop down into the 40% range and in off-year congressional elections, down to the middle 30% range. In primary elections, voter turnout can fall below 30%, while in local elections, turnout often drops below 25% of eligible voters.

These voting rates place the United States near the bottom of industrialized nations, many of which experience much higher voting rates. For example, over 80% of eligible citizens vote consistently in Australia, Belgium, Sweden, Netherlands, Austria, and Germany.

There are many reasons for the low voter turnout in the U.S. Voting is not compulsory in the U.S., as it is in many other countries, including Australia. Also, some American voters may choose to not vote because they feel their vote does not count, because they fail to see much difference between the choices offered, or because they are alienated from the political system due to voter apathy or alienation (lack of trust in politicians, sense of personal powerlessness).

People argue over the effects of voter turnout rates in the U.S. Some people argue that because nonvoters tend to be poorer, less educated, and minorities, elected politicians can more easily disregard their interests when creating public policy. Also, since the Democratic Party attracts more people who fit these profiles, higher voting rates might result in additional support for Democrats, or for candidates from other parties that appeal to voters with lower socioeconomic characteristics. Others dispute these assumptions, arguing that higher voting rates would not change the overall makeup of the electorate enough to cause significant change in election outcomes and public policy. A study of this question by Raymond Wolfinger and Benjamin Highton, for example, revealed that the overall group of nonvoters largely mirrors the diverse and ideologically divided population that already votes.

Voter Turnout in Single-member Districts vs. Proportional Representation

In the United States, in a good election year, less than half the voters go to the polls, and in non-presidential years, turnout often dips below 40% (Barber, 1995). This raises serious questions about how legitimate and representative our governing institutions really are. For example, in the 1994 elections that brought the Republicans to power in Congress, turnout was only 39%. And only 23% of the eligible voters actually cast votes for candidates who won seats in the House.

Voter participation looks even worse when compared to European Democracies (see Table 1). The U.S. ranks embarrassingly low compared to most of these other countries. Several factors explain this glaring difference. Some of these other countries have compulsory voting, and others make voting easier with simple registration, voting on weekends, and other conveniences. However, in many countries, the number of voters is high because people actually believe that their votes count.

TABLE 1: Voter Turnout in Legislative Elections in 10 Western Democracies


Election System

Turnout Rate (Election Year)








Great Britain


United States

Party-List PR

Mixed Member PR

Single-Member Dist.

SOURCE: Barber, K. (1995). A Right to Representation: Proportional Systems for the 21st Century.

Center for Voting and Democracy.

In many of the countries with high voter turnout, there is full representation (traditionally called “proportional representation (PR)”) or an electoral system in which like-minded groupings of voters will win legislative seats in better proportion to their share of the popular vote than in winner-take-all elections (Anderson, 1995). Whereas the winner-take-all principle awards 100% of the representation to a 50.1% majority, full representation allows voters in a minority to win their fair share of representation alongside voters in the majority. Full representation requires at least some legislators to be elected in multi-seat districts with more than one representative.

There is a broad range of full representation systems. Some are based on voting for political parties; others for candidates. Some allow very small groupings of voters to win seats; others require higher thresholds of support to win representation. All promote more accurate, balanced representation of the spectrum of political opinion in a given electorate.

More voters tend to participate in PR elections because a multi-party system simply offers more choices (Barber, 1995). When it is easier to find a candidate or party that matches a voter’s desires, individuals are more likely to vote. In addition, with PR, voters also have a much better chance of having their votes count — of actually electing someone. This is another strong incentive to vote.

In the U.S. And many established nations, many incumbents have “safe seats.” This reduces voter turnout. Why should Democrats go to the polls in districts where they are greatly outnumbered by Republicans (or vice versa)? Political parties usually make little effort to get out the vote in districts where they stand a lesser chance of winning.

There were so many safe seats in the 1994 U.S. House elections, that 2/3 of the incumbents were either unopposed or won by landslides of more than 20% percent. In Florida, almost half of the seats were uncontested and 3/4 of the incumbents won by landslides. As a result, turnout plummeted to 23%.


Higher voter turnout can be achieved by adopting political systems that reinforce that value of the individual vote (USA Today, 1995). Statistics show that in countries where voting has only recently become a privilege, voter turnouts are extremely high: 92% in Uzbekistan and 91% in Kazakstan, for instance.

Perhaps the reason for low voter turnout is that people perceive voting as a right and not as a privilege as it might be in many other countries, including the U.S. (Anderson, 1995). Like so many other privileges that are given to citizens, the right to simply take it for granted. Looking backless than 50 years ago, people devoted their lives to obtain the right to vote. Consider Roosevelt Brown and the suffrage movement. Consider the early leaders of women’s rights, who fought for voting rights. These groups fought and died because they believed in the power of voting.

Many citizens of civilized countries fail to realize that being able to vote is a privilege that other people in the world still do not have. Being able to vote is one of the major privileges of living in a country that has a democratic government. Many countries do not have the privilege of being able to vote, and would really appreciate their votes. Unfortunately, many citizens, especially the younger adults, do not completely understand or believe that their vote is important. Every vote counts, and one vote can make a major difference.

There are no “safe districts” in PR systems (Barber, 1995). Each district is competitive because even parties in the minority can elect candidates. This makes a big difference whether a party gets 20 or 40% of the vote, because more votes means more seats. So more people want to vote and parties try to mobilize their voters in all districts, not just a few.

For all of these reasons, adopting proportional representation elections would be a major help in addressing the low voter turnout levels in the U.S. And other voter-challenged nations.

In conclusion, countries need to promote the importance of voting by developing systems that show how one vote could make the biggest or smallest difference in the world. It could be that one vote that chooses the next president or it could be one vote that decided to destroy all the guns in the nation. If countries develop political systems that reinforce that value of the individual vote, perhaps citizens would think twice about skipping the voting booths, realizing what a difference one vote could make.


Anderson, D. (1999). Alternative Electoral Systems: An Answer to Our Governing Crisis in Paul Scheele (ed.), We Get What We Vote For… Or Do We? Westport, CN: Praeger Publishing.

Barber, K. (1995). A Right to Representation: Proportional Systems for the 21st Century.

Center for Voting and Democracy.

International IDEA (2000). International IDEA Voter Turnout. IDEA Newsletter, Vol. 4.

USA TODAY, “A Route to Fairer Voting.” USA Today, June 30, 1995, p. 12A.

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