What factors determine whether people turn out to vote in U.S. elections? Should states continue to allow ballot initiatives and other forms of direct democracy? Why or why not?

Quick answer:

Common factors determining if people vote or don’t vote include passion for a candidate or an issue, whether or not the presidency is at stake, and how easily people can cast their vote. An interesting factor is the weather on election day.

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Voters show up at the polls for any number of reasons, but the most common ones are strong approval/disapproval of a candidate and ballot measure. Most people also take pride in exercising their right to vote. Another reason may be whether or not it’s a presidential election year. More people tend to vote during presidential elections than in midterm elections.

Ballot measures and other forms of direct democracy have achieved many useful things in the past. Some of the first citizen initiatives abolished poll taxes, gave women the right to vote, and funded public higher education.

While some of these, such as the ones listed above, benefited larger sections of the population than others, in recent years ballot initiatives have been targeted to more specific audiences and causes. This has led to some criticism that special-interest groups of conservatives and progressives are using the process to further their own agendas rather than society at large.

Looking at the 2020 election, legalizing marijuana, reforming immigration, and fighting climate change are just a few of the kinds of initiatives on state-wide ballots. The idea that citizens themselves are capable of changing the law thru direct democracy and are not dependent on an elected body to do so can feel inspiring; as opposed to voting between two candidates and choosing the “lesser of two evils,” a vote on an initiative can seem a positive choice.

The number of initiatives across the country has been steady since 2010, suggesting direct democracy will be part of our electoral process for some years to come. It is worth noting, however, that this year several states, including Missouri, Arizona, Maine, South Dakota, and Colorado, are challenging the initiative process itself.

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