Today I was having a discussion with a colleague who is originally from the United States (US). I was asking him about the participation rate for the presidential elections in the US. I was shocked to hear that it is only around 50%. In my own country (the Netherlands) it has been between 70 and 80% for the last twenty years.

My colleague explained to me that in the US it is more difficult to register for voting (we don't need to do that at all in the Netherlands) and that waiting lines for voting can be long, such that people have to wait up to an hour. In the case of the Netherlands, there are so many voting booths that voting has never taken me more than five minutes.

This brings me to my questions:

1) Starting from the assumptions that a high participation rate is a good thing, why don't they increase the number of voting booths in the US to increase the participation rate? I can imagine that this costs more money, but it would be for a good cause (assuming that this increases the turnout). However, my colleague expressed his suspicion that certain politicians do not want the turnout to be higher, because that would mean that their percentage of the vote would go down as the voters that do not show now are more inclined to vote for their rivals. Is this true?

Hence my second question:

2) Has there been any quantitative research/polling on the political tendencies of the people that do not go and vote? And could the sudden turnout of the normally non-voting people drastically change, for example, the outcome of presidential elections?

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    It might be relevant to note that voter turnout varies a lot from state to state. It's also generally higher for presidential elections than for midterm elections.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 16:31
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    @blip I agree, flawed. I'd wager that an apathetic population is a much larger reason for non-participation. Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 16:54
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    My understanding is that much of campaigning in the US is already about non-voters, either trying to get 'your' non-voters to vote, or to a lesser extent turn 'their' voters into non-voters. the center isn't as juicy as your base.
    – user9389
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 17:31
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    @abelenky - And in other states, it never gets to be more than a minute or three. Or they use mail-in only, so there are no lines at all.
    – Bobson
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 21:39
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    USA has a first-past-the-post system exacerbated by gerrymandering. If you're a leftie in rural Kansas or a conservative in Washington DC, your vote is very unlikely to make a difference. The Netherlands has a proportional representation system with a 0.67% threshold, such that even for small minorities, such as animal rights parties or the christian right, voting actually matters. I believe that is the most important factor explaining the difference.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 18:07

3 Answers 3


Voting locations are managed by state and local government. That's one of the reasons voting machines vary so much from place to place in America. It may be that local politicians try to suppress votes by making voting inconvenient. However suggestions that this happens at the national level are questionable because a national politician would want to increase turnout in those districts that are managed by people of the same party. E.g. Suppose district A is a heavily Whig district - most of voters are Whigs, and thus their local officials are also Whigs. For the good of the Whig party in national elections, it makes sense to get a high turnout from that Whig district. The other non-Whig parties might want to suppress votes there, but they don't have the power to do so.

One consequence of local management of voting is that poorer districts and districts with less competent leadership have to deal with the problems you describe of long lines and other inconveniences.

It has been noted that low voter turnout is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it may indicate that people are generally content with their leadership and don't see a need to go vote to change it. Also, people who make an effort to learn about and ponder the issues are more likely to make a greater effort to vote. Encouraging greater participation from those less inclined to participate may lead to less-informed and less-thoughtful voting.

To answer your second question, this website's demographic and polling data suggests that if all the non-voters were to start voting it would be a benefit to the Democratic party.

Reflecting their low levels of political engagement, only about half of nonvoters (47%) identify with either political party; 29% identify as Democrats, 18% as Republicans while 45% are independents. Among likely voters, 68% identify with a party (37% Democrat, 31% Republican) and just 30% are independents.

Taking into account the party leanings of independents, about half of nonvoters (51%) either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic; just 30% affiliate with the GOP or lean Republican, while 20% do not lean toward either party. Among likely voters, 50% identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, 44% identify as Republicans or lean Republican, and just 6% have no party leanings.

  • Is there any research to suggest that voter turnout is tied to approval rating of current leaders, or other metrics that would imply that "people are generally content with their leadership and don't see a need to go vote to change it"? Also, is an individual's likelihood of voting tied to their level of education or knowledge of current political issues? Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 13:51
  • The quoted analysis is specific to the midterm election of 2014, but we are currently talking about the presidential election of 2016. We might find very different results then, as we did in 2012 and 2008. Midterms, especially midterms with a Democrat president, are known for showing much higher turnout among Republicans than Democrats. We should be careful about trying to use that to extrapolate presidential election demographics, which have historically been different.
    – Brythan
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 14:14

It's really the only way that the Republican party can have a chance at winning. There are many people who don't get around to voting because it's not easy for them to do it. Poor people working two or more jobs who have been conditioned to believe that their vote probably won't make a difference don't bother to vote. When it comes time to voting, they don't even have 5 minutes of time to make it to the voting booth.




I can't post more links because Republicans are taking away my reputation.


IGNORANCE and LAZINESS are the major reasons that citizens of the USA do not participate in elections.

"Ignorance" is used according to its definition in the dictionary, I do NOT mean mental insufficiency, or having a low IQ.

example of the meaning of "IGNORANCE": Most (95% ...my_guess) Americans do NOT understand what the "Electoral College" is or why the founders of the USA insisted upon that formulation of voting. Americans are IGNORANT of those facts, they are not stupid.

The same ignorance that floods the mind of layed-off steel workers, textile workers, auto workers, others; that can't understand that the labor cost is twice or TEN times too expensive, when that labor can be performed at 1/2 or 1/10 the cost overseas.

Indeed the idea that unskilled labor in the USA is DEAD, that President Trump can NOT revive it. Woe to the USA when that idea is realized by the American public !

The term "Laziness" is a simple word that doesn't need an explanation.

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    -1: Although you may find people who think this way, the post is completely based on opinion, not on facts. Such answers are discouraged on StackExchange network. Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 18:56

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