U.S. Politics: Voter Participation Research Paper Starter

U.S. Politics: Voter Participation

This paper takes an in-depth look at how voter participation has evolved in the modern United States and how it is gauged by political observers and sociologists alike. Such information not only paints a picture of how an election transpires but also provides a glimpse of the profile of the American voter.

Keywords Compulsory Voting; Demographic; Donkey Votes; Mobilization; Negative Advertising; Voter Turnout

Sociology of Politics


The well-known conservative columnist George F. Will once offered his thoughts on the impact voters have on a democratic government. "Voters," he said, "don't decide issues. They decide who will decide issues" ("George F. Will," 1996). His words echo the words of the United States’ founders, who in the Declaration of Independence wrote of the critical importance of voter participation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" (Hancock, 2008).

Jefferson and Will both speak with a sense of respect and humility for the power of the electorate. When the United States achieved its independence, the founding fathers gave legislators and the president great authority to maintain and operate the everyday workings of the government. However, while the power to write laws and administer the multitude of tasks inherent in such a complex political system falls to elected officials, the fact that each of these officials must look to the electorate for an endorsement at the end of each term is indicative of the awesome power of the vote.

However, what is considered one of the United States of America's greatest political assets can also be an enormous flaw. If voters fail to participate in a system that relies on their polling input, the system is at risk for negative change such as increased corruption or irrelevant policymaking. Social scientists, taking this fact into consideration, tend to look at voter participation rates with great interest, seeking to uncover the dynamics behind voter behavior. Politicians also look at voter participation rates with perhaps even more concern; data concerning who travels to polling sites and in what numbers helps to gauge how an election will proceed.

This paper takes an in-depth look at how voter participation has evolved in the modern United States and how it is gauged by political observers and sociologists alike. Such information not only paints a picture of how an election transpires but also provides a glimpse of the profile of the American voter.

The Power of Inclusion

Ideally, democracies are built based on the diversity of the society they represent. Under democratic regimes, the people are protected from discrimination based on religion, race, or other sociological factors. The people are also encouraged to become involved in the affairs of government by selecting people to represent them and their interests at the local, state, and federal levels.

One of the most effective vehicles for this participation is the political party. Parties often represent a certain social demographic, special interest group, or collection thereof. The political interests of that group are imbued into party candidates, who are expected to adhere to the party line (Geys & Vermeir, 2008). Thus, there is a general timeline by which the process works — first, individuals form coalitions representative of their interests; next, those coalitions form political parties; third, those parties form platforms; and fourth, the people vote for (or against) the party candidate in a general election (Fernandez & Levy, 2008).

A discussion about political parties is important to the central discussion of this paper, for the message of political candidates (if affiliated) tends to come from the party platform. If a political system has a wide range of parties from which to choose a candidate that suits a voter's interests, then more people are inclined to participate in the political process. Likewise, if there are too few candidates and parties, the candidates' positions might seem watered down to the point of perceived ineffectuality or irrelevance, and as a result, fewer people may choose to participate in campaigns and elections.

Low US Voter Turnout

Some scholars suggest that the United States may experience lower-than-expected voter turnout for two major reasons.

  • First, the United States only has two major parties, the Democratic and Republican parties.
  • Second, joining and participating in the party system can be a difficult and inflexible experience.

Democracies with more diverse party composition and more flexible registration laws typically see a significantly higher voter turnout (Powell, 1986).

Voter participation is central to the success of a democracy and, as such, is one of the pivotal elements political candidates, political scientists, news media, and sociologists take into account when gauging the effectiveness of a given system. This paper next takes a look at a country with a high rate of voter participation. In doing so, the reader will glean a better understanding of some of the strengths and shortcomings of the American system.

As Required by Law

In 1924, turnout for the Australian national elections was, in the eyes of that nation, unacceptable — it had fallen below 60 percent. In the minds of Australians, it was clear that change was needed. The change was a new law that required all citizens of voting age to vote or be penalized with a fine. Such a law might seem counter to the fundamentals of a free and democratic society. However, polling consistently indicates that the majority of Australian citizens support the concept of mandatory voting (Weiner, 2004).

With a rate of voter participation surpassing 90 percent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2013), Australia's law has elevated that country to the top of the world in terms of the number of people taking part in elections. However, the vote is still a secret ballot, and there is no fine or punishment for the individual who does not take the vote seriously. Australian election observers, in fact, take instances of voter apathy or civil disobedience in stride in their reports — some voters cast "donkey votes," so-called because the voter plays a game of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" with candidate names in the booth. Others cast votes out of protest or vote in error. Officials regularly take account of hundreds of thousands of such "spoiled ballots" in federal elections. Many even challenge the idea of the law's mandate as "compulsory voting," as the law merely requires that people register to vote when they reach their eighteenth birthday and go to polling sites on Election Day — there is no compulsion to vote for one candidate over another.

The prevalence of "donkey votes" and other spoiled ballots have prompted some leaders and activists to argue for a return to a voluntary voting system. The unstated reason for this push is one that casts light on the sociological effects the law has had on private citizens. The chief proponents of the change tend to belong to the country’s more conservative political parties, which in turn tend to represent the interests of conservative, wealthier, and well-educated Australians.

Those who advocate for voluntary voting, it has been argued, see the current system as empowering those of lower social class, who tend to support more liberal politicians, to participate in the election system and vote in favor of their preferred parties' platforms. One study revealed that if a voluntary system replaced the current mandatory voting regime, voluntary voters would likely be well-educated, Australian- or British-born, wealthier, older citizens who would likely prefer a more conservative agenda. Comparing the two systems, the study indicated that if a voluntary voting system were enacted, the more conservative party would gain an...

(The entire section is 3634 words.)