We’ve made it, folks: 2020. And for this political science nerd, that means election season.
It’s going to be quite an election year which, for many, is an unbearable thought as images of mudslinging, endless campaign ads and overwhelming robocalls fill their heads. As an academic, however, it means plenty of data to analyze.
Specifically, this week I want to look at national voter turnout from a comparative perspective as a sort of next step in a series of articles you’ve seen here. I’ve written before about the 2020 census and its importance vis a vis policy. Last week, my respected colleague wrote in this column about the perception that apathy and cynicism are endangering American Democracy. His conclusion was that our democracy can handle the levels of apathy, cynicism, and political polarization we are seeing today. We’ve fared worse, and come out on the other side.
This sparked my interest, however, in examining the measures of apathy among voters. How can we tell that apathy exists and to what degree? This is an important question if we want to understand where our democratic system stands.
The Pew Research Center conducted a survey to understand voter turnout in the U.S. during the 2018 midterm elections. Midterms occur two years into a Presidential term and determine Congressional seats. During the 2018 midterms, we saw higher voter turnout than we had in the last 20 years with 55% of eligible voters participating in the election. This can be considered a surge with voting going from 36.4% in the 2014 midterms to 55% in the 2018 midterms.
Now, to put it in perspective, in a Presidential election year we have had historical averages hovering around 60% of our voter population showing up to cast a vote. In midterms, like the one described above, the number drops to about 40%. In a local election that is not tied to a bigger national election, this number will on average be around 20%. This jump in participation, therefore, is pretty significant and certainly does not indicate apathy among voters but rather indicates a surge in interest. The districts where there were highly contested races drove this jump in numbers.
Comparing these numbers internationally tells a somewhat different story of participation. Compared to other developed countries, even this surge in numbers ranks us on the low end of things. Countries like Spain (61%), Canada (62.1%), the UK (63.2%), New Zealand (75.7%), and Sweden (82.6%) far outpace us when it comes to voters showing up to the polls.
What does this indicate about the 2020 election, voter apathy, and turnout? What will matter is how contentious races impact turnout. As dissatisfaction rises, apathy decreases. And though we are lagging compared to other democratic systems in developed nations, it appears that apathy is not a problem when people are fired up enough to participate.
So, whether you are fired up to keep our incumbent President and members of Congress in office, or fired-up to make a change, I hope you will. Then we can all summarily put the apathy debate to rest.