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Voter turnout

Voter turnout measures how many eligible voters actually cast their ballots. It varies greatly by region, demographic, and even year. Factors like political efficacy (belief in the effectiveness of one's vote), engagement (interest in the issues or candidates), and voting laws can impact turnout. Understanding these factors helps predict future voting trends.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're going to talk about in this video is Voter Turnout. Which is a way of thinking about, well, how many of the people who could vote actually do vote? It's often expressed as a number, as a percentage, where you have the number who vote, number who vote, over the number of eligible voters. Number who could vote, who could vote. And this percentage varies pretty dramatically from region to region, amongst various demographic groups, we'll talk about that in a few minutes, and especially if you think about, even sometimes year to year and from country to country. There's some countries that have mandatory voting, where this number is a lot higher, other countries, for various reasons, this number could be lot lower. And one thing for you to think about if you're already of voting age, you might have already thought this, or if you're not voting yet, you will soon, what would drive you to vote, or what would drive you to not vote? Stay home, or somehow keep you from engaging in this political process. Well one thing that you'll often hear folks say is does my vote matter? Does my vote matter? And the typical response that you would get if you say that is well if everyone thought that, then democracy really won't function, so yes, your vote does matter. So that's the high-level way of thinking about it, but everyone thinks about this to a certain degree. And this idea of thinking about whether your vote matters a fancy way of describing that is you're thinking about your Political Efficacy. Political efficacy. Fancy political science term, but it's really just this idea of what's my belief about how politically effective I can be when I vote. If I am in a battleground State, say Florida, where even Presidential Elections have turned on a few hundreds of votes, in Florida, you might say, hey, I have high political efficacy. My vote does matter there. But some folks who live in a State that may be strongly leaning towards one party or another during a Presidential Election, say a California, that tends to go to a Democrat, or say a Texas, that tends to go to a Republican, regardless of which party you are, you'd say, well if I'm just one more Republican vote in Texas, does my vote matter? If I'm one more Democratic vote in California, does my vote matter? I would encourage you in both cases, your vote does matter. If everyone believed that, then our democracy does not function. Now a related idea to political efficacy is this idea of just how engaged are people? So I'll call that engagement. And this might be, well how much do they care? So beyond does my vote matter, there's a notion of do I care? There are certain elections where you might really like one candidate or might really dislike another candidate. You might think, hey, there's some big issues on the table that rally affect my life. So I might be more engaged. Or frankly, the various candidates, or the various political parties or community organizations might just be better at engaging the population. Now a third dimension beyond whether people believe their vote matters or how engaged they are in the issues or the candidates is the structure around voting itself. What State Laws are there around voting, and how easy or how hard is it to vote? So, for example, if there's a big window of time where people can vote, and if the polling places are really accessible, especially if they're available on say a holiday, then it might be easier for people to actually go to vote. But on the other hand, if they aren't that accessible, or if it's on a day where a lot of folks might need to work, or certain demographics might need to work, well they might be less likely to turn out. You also have laws around absentee ballots, or people being able to vote ahead of time. The easier it is logistically to vote, the more accessible it is, you're gonna get a higher turnout. Now political scientists don't just study voter turnout to understand the past. They look at the past to try and make predictions about the future. The next Congressional Election, the next Presidential Election, if they're trying to figure out which way it might go, you can't just survey people alone and say, well are you gonna vote for this candidate or that candidate because you also have to think about how likely are they to vote. And that likelihood could be based on various factors. It might be based on their age, it might be based on their race, it might be based on their education level. And to appreciate that, let's start taking a look at some data. This chart right over here shows voter turnout by sex and age in the 2008 US Presidential Election, where the blue bars are males, and the red bars are females. And then you can see the different age groups. And so pause this video. It's just fun to look at these things. What take-aways are there here? Well, you can see if you look at all of the eligible voters, total, 18 years and over, that women had a higher voter turn-out than men. 60.4% of eligible women vote, only 55.7% of men. Think about why that might be. What beliefs might women have around their own political efficacy relative to men? Maybe they're more engaged, maybe there's issues on the table that they care more about. And then if you look by age group, that trend tends to be true. It's most pronounced at the younger age groups, but then things get more and more equal as we go to the older age groups. The only place where that trend breaks down is in 75 years and over. And then you also have the general trend that older folks are more likely to vote. Once again, why is that? Here's another interesting chart. This is voter turnout by educational attainment, for the same US Presidential Election, 2008. So you can see that on average, across all education levels, you have this voter turnout around 58.2%, but the more educated people get, the more they're likely, or at least in that election, the more likely they were to actually vote. The more educated people are, they might feel more engaged, they might have a better belief that their vote is effective so they have a belief around political efficacy. This is voter turnout in the 2008 US Presidential Election by race and ethnicity. And so here you see that in that election, White voters had 64.8% turnout, Black voters 60.8%, and you can see Asian and Hispanic voters were much, much lower. What does this say about political engagement, and what does it say about their beliefs around political efficacy? And to see trends over time, I'm going to go to the site of FairVote.org, which is a really great non-partisan non-profit that is trying to think about how to we get a better democracy. So this diagram right over here shows voter turnout rates from 1916 to 2016. And there's two different lines here. The top one is in Presidential Elections, this is the 2016 Presidential Election, and this bottom line right over here is the Mid-Term elections. So this is where there isn't someone running for president. Why do you think that there's such a big gap here? That pretty consistently, you have a much higher voter turnout in this, depending on what year you look at, but say in 2016, you have a 60% voter turnout, while in the Mid-Term Election of 2014, you didn't even break 40%. You had little under 36% voter turnout. Why do you think you have this big gap? Well you could probably turn to these ideas of political efficacy and engagement. One thing that people talk about around Congressional Seats is that there tends to not be a lot of turnover around it. In other videos, we've talked about how the districts might be shaped to benefit incumbents, the entire process might be benefiting incumbents, so people might say, hey, I have a very low political efficacy here. Most Congresspeople tend to stay in office, so maybe that's why they don't really go out to vote, and there might be an engagement thing going on, that on Presidential years, where also Congresspeople are up for re-election, or up for election, the reason why people go out to vote is that Presidential Elections are these really big dramatic things, they take over the press, they take over everyone's attention. Now another interesting thing to think about is the trend. Why, say, in Presidential Elections, actually in Presidential and in Mid-Term Elections, do you have such high engagement in the 1960s, relative to, say, the 1980s and 1990s, where things got pretty low? One argument could be that the 1960s was a time of very high political engagement. You had the Vietnam War going on, you had the Civil Rights Movement. Now if we scroll down on FairVote right over here, we can see voter turnout in the 2016 elections by State. And the deeper the purple here, the higher the turnout. And so what patterns do you see here? And I'll give you a hint. Think about which States are battleground States. The ones that could flip either way, or the ones that could have flipped either way in the 2016 election. Well you can see the deeper purple are on States like Florida, or in States like Ohio, or Wisconsin and (mumbles), Michigan. These are indeed battleground States. So you can imagine folks in those States believed that they had higher political efficacy. Now in the 2014 elections, you don't see it as dramatic. This is a Mid-Term election year. So people are thinking a lot less about the Electoral College and Presidential Elections, so it isn't as all or nothing as they are in the Electoral College in the Presidential Elections, so you don't see it as pronounced. But if you go back to 2012, which was a Presidential Election year, you see the same pattern again. That the battleground States are a deeper color. So I will leave you there. You should vote, that's just my public service message, but it's interesting to think about why, in general, voter turnout might change.