5.2 Voter Turnout

6 min readjanuary 29, 2023



AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

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In the previous topic, we discussed the various legal protections for voters. However, it is not enough for someone to be allowed to vote under the U.S. Constitution for them to turn up on Election Day to a pooling station and have their vote counted. This topic goes over the various factors that affect voter turnout.

State and Federal Laws & Voter Turnout

State and federal laws set the guidelines for how elections look and are being executed, which can either limit or expand citizens' access to the voting process.

National vs. state-controlled elections

When the Constitution was ratified, many states feared the possibility of an all-powerful central government controlling elections at the federal, state, and local elections. To address these fears, the Framers granted the states a significant amount of power 💪 in determining election laws within their boundaries. States determine the time and locations of most elections, develop their own ballots and registration requirements, and draw ✍ district lines for congressional elections. Voter turnout may also be affected by the structure of the election system. For example, a state with closed primary elections may have lower voter turnout than a state with open primary elections, as closed primaries tend to limit voter participation. Despite these powers, the federal government still plays a significant role in elections throughout the country, most notably in creating and enforcing constitutional amendments and civil rights legislation related to voting and elections. The federal government also develops and enforces campaign finance 💲💵 rules.
National elections often tend to have higher voter turnout rates than state-controlled ones because they tend to receive more media coverage and have a higher public profile, which can generate greater interest among voters.

Voter registration laws and procedures

Although the states have significant control over elections, the federal government has enacted legislation influencing different stages of the election process. One of the most well-known election laws is the National Voter Registration Act 🚙, commonly known as the “motor-voter law.” The law was passed in 1993 to increase participation in federal elections by making it easier for citizens to register to vote. The act requires states to allow their residents to register at various bureaucratic agencies within the state—usually at departments of motor vehicles. 
Examples of how voter registration laws and procedures can affect voter turnout are found in the following:
1. Voter registration deadlines: States with strict voter registration deadlines may see lower voter turnout, as some individuals may miss the deadline and be unable to vote. Some states allow individuals to register to vote and cast their ballot on the same day; this can increase voter turnout by allowing people who missed registration deadlines or didn't know they were eligible to vote to participate in the election.
30 days before Election DaySame-day registration allowed
57.5% turnout76.3% turnout
2. Voter identification requirements: Some states have implemented voter ID laws requiring voters to present certain forms of identification before voting. These laws can make it more difficult for some individuals, particularly those from marginalized communities, to vote, leading to lower voter turnout.
Photo ID requiredNo photo ID required
59.8% turnout80% turnout
3. Automatic voter registration (AVR): Some states have implemented automatic voter registration, registering eligible citizens to vote when interacting with certain government agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. This can increase voter turnout by making the registration process more convenient and streamlined.
No AVRAVR implemented
55% turnout76.4% turnout
4. Online registration: States that allow online voter registration tend to see higher voter turnout as it's more convenient than paper registration and reduces the likelihood of missing registration deadlines.
Online registration unavailableOnline registration available
56.1% voter turnout75.8% voter turnout
Note that stats have different combinations of rules, and no single one can determine voter turnout exclusively. They all, however, contribute to a certain extent to the overall calculations.

Voting incentives or penalties or fines

In principle, voting incentives can increase voter turnout, such as monetary or non-monetary rewards (lottery systems, raffles, time off from work), can increase voter turnout. Penalties or fines, such as financial penalties or legal consequences, can also increase voter turnout by creating a more substantial disincentive for not voting. However, both incentives and penalties can also be seen as coercion, and a decrease in perceived political legitimacy can offset the effects of these policies in increasing voter turnout. Ultimately, the impact of these measures on voter turnout can vary depending on the political, cultural, and social context in which they are implemented.
These incentives can vary widely by state and local jurisdiction, and some states may not offer any voting incentives at all. In California, there is paid time off (2 hours); in Maryland - free public transportation to polling places in some cities; in Seattle - voter rewards programs.

Midterm vs. presidential elections

The type of election is super important in determining the degree of voter turnout. While turnout in American elections is typically lower compared to other developed countries, far more voters show up at the polls for presidential elections than midterm elections—the House and Senate elections that occur in the middle of a president’s term. There are many reasons why Americans don’t turn out to vote on election day. Some find it difficult to take time off of work 👷, others have children 👶 and can’t find childcare, and still, others simply believe that their vote doesn’t matter—a concept known as low political efficacy. For example, many Republican 🟥 voters in states dominated by the Democratic Party 🟦—such as California—are less motivated to participate in significant elections since their party’s preferred candidate is improbable to win statewide elections. 

Factors Influencing Voter Choice

Various factors come into play in determining whether an eligible voter will participate on election day in the United States. Family upbringing and political ideology are some of the most critical factors influencing voting behavior. A voter's political efficacy—whether or not they think their vote matters—can strongly influence citizens in an election year. A person’s culture and how politically informed they are may also contribute to whether or not they vote.  
In addition to state and federal legislation and different types of elections, other factors determine the degree of voter turnout in state and national elections. One of the most significant is party identification and ideological orientation. Americans that are strongly tied to a major political party or consider themselves closely aligned to progressive or conservative views often vote in higher numbers. 

Candidate characteristics 

Elections have increasingly become more candidate-centered and less reliant on political parties. Instead of relying solely on their own party, candidates hire professional consultants to craft a favorable image, campaign slogan, and overall vision for the election cycle. Some voters are highly responsive to these factors and may decide to turn out to vote if they feel strongly about the characteristics of a candidate as presented during the campaign.

Contemporary political issues

The current political issues of the day will often strongly influence voter turnout. The 2020 presidential election had historically high turnout rates in part because voters were concerned about controversial topics from the past year—most notably racial tensions related to acts of police brutality and the hardships brought about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religion, gender, race & ethnicity

The gender gap is the difference in political views between men 👨 and women 👩 In recent decades, women have turned out to vote in slightly higher numbers than men. Women tend to support the Democratic Party 🟦 because many of their views align with the party’s platform—especially their opposition to the death penalty and support for social welfare programs 💸 that aid lower-income individuals and families. Men tend to support the Republican Party 🟥 due to their more extreme views on criminal punishment and conservative fiscal policy. Age matters when understanding voting turnout. The lowest voter turnout is among voters between the ages of 18-30, while the highest turnout is among older voters. Older voters—especially senior citizens 👴—vote in higher numbers because they’re usually better informed and have more to lose (investments, property, social security and Medicare payments) than younger voters. Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters usually express more robust support for Democratic 🟦 candidates, while white voters tend to vote in higher numbers for Republican 🟥 candidates. Protestant evangelicals ⛪—especially whites located in the South and Midwest—strongly support Republican 🟥 candidates because of their anti-abortion views, support for prayer in public schools, and opposition to evolutionary theory. Catholics have historically supported the Democratic Party 🟦 but more recently, the gap between the two parties has diminished, with increased support for the Republican Party 🟥 in some election years.
📽️ Watch: AP Gov - Voting & Voting Behavior

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