For every 10 U.S. adults, six vote and four don’t. What separates them?
While young people, poor people and Hispanics are often singled out for low voting rates, there are millions of nonvoters in every demographic group. In fact, the majority of people who did not vote in the 2012 presidential election were white, middle-income and middle-aged.
But what distinguishes voters from nonvoters can be only partly explained by demographics. Experts say individuals tend to be motivated by a combination of their priorities, their group culture, how competitive their state is, and how easy or hard it is to vote.
At the individual level, education and income are still two of the strongest predictors of whether someone will turn out at the polls.
“Most of the differences between people who vote and those who don’t vote can be accounted for by motivational reasons — levels of political interest and engagement,” said Benjamin Highton, a professor of political science at the University of California, Davis. “And levels of political interest and engagement are strongly correlated with education and income.”
While education increases political knowledge and engagement, the factors that drive an individual to pursue education may be the same ones that lead to participation in politics.
Age is also strongly correlated to voting. One explanation is that as people get older, they tend to own homes, pay more taxes and have less residential mobility, increasing their stakes in the political system. Voting rates begin to fall when people reach their late 70s, as health and mobility obstacles make it harder to get to the polls.
There are also group dynamics that influence voting rates across racial and ethnic lines. Even when statistics are adjusted for income and education, there are large gaps among rates for whites, blacks and Hispanics in the United States. Black voters, particularly women, have the highest turnout rates overall. The turnout gap with whites is most pronounced at lower levels of income and education.
Experts give several explanations for high black turnout, which has increased by nearly 20 percentage points since the mid-1990s. The presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama encouraged more African-Americans to register to vote, and black churches have played a strong role in mobilization.
African-Americans are also more reliable partisan voters — more than 90 percent voted for Obama in 2012 — so Democrats may be more likely to put resources toward getting them to turn out than other groups.
Turnout rates for Hispanic voters are much lower overall. Language barriers and weaker connections to the political system are part of the explanation, said Melissa R. Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College in California. “There’s this idea that even if you are legally entitled to vote, you don’t see it as something that matters to you and your community,” she said.
But Hispanic voters are not a homogeneous group. Hispanics who are naturalized citizens are more likely to vote than those born in the United States. Immigrant communities perceive a higher stake in election outcomes, Michelson said.
“Being an immigrant has become a politicized identity, and there’s a very clear connection between your identity as an immigrant and what’s going on in the political areas,” she said.
In Florida, the gap between Hispanics and other racial groups is smaller, in part because the state has a large number of Cuban-Americans, who tend to be wealthier and more educated.
In states with competitive races, people may have a sense that their vote matters more, and campaigns will pour more resources into getting out the vote. Some of the worst turnout rates in recent cycles have been in Hawaii and West Virginia, which have had some of the largest margins — favoring Democrats in Hawaii and Republicans in West Virginia.
State voting laws like registration deadlines, early and no-excuse absentee voting and voter identification also dictate some of the differences in turnout among states, but the effects appear to be minimal.
Experts cite same-day registration as the policy with the best potential for increasing turnout, but the true effect can be hard to measure because it is often adopted in places that already have an active voting culture, like Upper Midwestern states.
While research shows that minorities are disproportionately affected by voter identification laws, which Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures have fought to expand in recent years, there has been mixed evidence on whether the laws have significantly reduced turnout. Political scientists say mobilization in response to the laws may have helped to counter the effects.
In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, about 58 percent of eligible voters turned out. That rate, which was generally on par with other U.S. presidential elections in the modern era, trails rates for most other developed countries.
Some structural differences are at play: Several countries at the top of the list, including Belgium, Australia and Turkey, have laws requiring citizens to vote. Others automatically register, or are more active in registering, their citizens.
Systems of proportional representation, in which multiple parties earn seats based on the vote, have also been found to encourage participation in elections.
Some prominent studies have concluded that 100 percent participation would not result in significantly different election outcomes. Still, differences in preferences between voters and nonvoters could make a difference at the margins. A 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that nonvoters were more likely to support Obama, and research suggests that if low-income voters were more proportionally represented, lawmakers would prioritize policies that favor income redistribution.
Regardless of outcomes, doesn’t high voter turnout signal a healthy democracy? Even this is a hotly contested issue among experts. While some say low turnout reflects discouragement with the system, the counterargument is that it is a sign that people think our democracy is generally working well.