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In the last US elections, the voting turnout was approximately 57.5% (Bipartisan Research Center). Over the last few decades, it has been shifting between 50 and 60 percent. This is in stark contrast with various European countries, where the voting turnout rate is significantly higher - 85% and up in some countries (e.g. Denmark, Germany, Sweden)

A major difference between the US and many of these countries is the two party system currently present in the United States. This makes me wonder: does the two party system influence voting turnout? Does it provide for poor engagement among the masses?

Or is it the other way around? Does poor engagement lead to less incentive to start broader political movement?

Has there been any research on the subject?

I'd guess that with only two parties, people in the center of the spectrum might not feel as strongly drawn to either side, especially in the suburban middle class. In a system with multiple parties, the chance of there being a party that more accurately represents ones ideals is simply larger.

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  • 4
    It's not fair to compare with Belgium, because it's mandatory to turn up to the voting booth there.
    – gerrit
    Dec 9, 2012 at 11:01
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    Another relevant aspect is probably the first-past-the-post system. Most US states are "safe" states for either Democrats or Republicans, so there is much less reason to vote.
    – gerrit
    Dec 9, 2012 at 11:02
  • Ah, you're absolutely right about Belgium. I've removed Belgium and made the percentage a bit more exact.
    – Joost
    Dec 9, 2012 at 12:23

2 Answers 2

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I would have to say yes. In the 2012 US election, much was made about "ground games" for each side. The PBS NewsHour talked a lot about their strategy. The Obama/Democratic team not only crafted and threw a ton of money into making the election into a clearer choice between two very different people, but they had tons of people out knocking on doors, getting out the vote. The undecideds weren't all that great in number, so the Dems in particular thought that the most important strategy was to get their base to turn out. They put a lot of resources into doing so and ultimately did just that.

I suppose my point is that the turnout could be a lot worse if there weren't parties spending tens of millions to get their people out, but it could be countered with the thought that if the system was different, more people would care. I'm not so sure. I think that other factors like the size of the country, non-mandatory voting, news consumption habits, and a general apathy within a country that has been shielded from extreme adversity for a long time would have more to do with turnout. It's just hard to get a message out to 300,000,000 people, many of whom don't feel like their lives would be different either way under a new president.

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  • An important point to your answer is that the money spent by the Obama/Democrats, and similar money spent by Romney/Republicans, was strongly focused on certain states. If you lived in or next to a swing state you would see political advertisements on TV constantly. But if you lived in a state where there was no doubt who would win, then you might not see any political commercials on TV and certainly no one from either campaign would come knocking on your door. So engagement could definitely be depressed on non-swing states.
    – Readin
    Apr 29, 2016 at 4:26
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Yes, I would argue that it does and that this is very general.

First of all, the two-party situation is created by a first-past-the-post mechanic, not by a lack of participation.

Secondly, let's say there is a number of different issues being debated and that each party can align for or against on every issue. A voter can also align for or against on each issue.

Many voters might disagree with both parties on a large fraction of the issues. Disagreeing on many policies of all candidates does not incentivize voting for any of them.

If there were more than two parties, each voter would be more likely to find a party they agree with on a higher fraction of the issues. Agreeing with a party on a large majority of the issues is a good incentive to go and vote for that particular party.

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  • A lot of people feel there's no point in voting, because in their state/district the same party always wins: either the voter doesn't support them, or else the voter supports them but isn't incentivised to vote if they think their party will win anyway. Under some forms of proportional representation there is more chance that your vote will count, although even in a multi-party system there can be safe seats.
    – Stuart F
    May 31 at 17:11
  • I agree, but this situation is also created by the fptp aka winner takes all mechanic. That system also adds potentially 49% wasted/uninfluencial votes.
    – mhh
    Jun 2 at 5:49

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