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Low Voter Turnout in the United States: Is it Still a Problem?

In the United States, there is one constant that has consistently been reported in our news cycles every election season. Often, it seems to be spurred on by some type of awakening many have as this time of the year approaches. That constant is the United States’ low voter turnout in elections. For a country that is built upon the backbone of democracy, allowing the people to decide who is chosen to promote our needs as constituents, the lack of voter turnout has been a notorious problem. However, this changed in the elections of 2018, 2020, and 2022, three of the highest-turnout U.S. elections of their respective types in decades. These past three elections lead us to question why they had such high voter turnout and whether or not low voter turnout is still a problem in the United States.


Examining Voter Turnout in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 Elections

When examining why the elections of 2018, 2020, and 2022 had such high voter turnout, let’s look at the election of 2018 first. The election of 2018, a midterm election, had more than half of U.S. eligible voters cast a ballot, making it the highest turnout rate for a midterm election in recent history. This increased turnout was marked by a specific increased turnout rate among Hispanic and Asian voters as each group’s rate increased to 40% by almost 13 percentage points, making the 2018 midterms the most racially and ethnically diverse midterms ever. In the 2020 presidential election, more than 158.4 million people voted, or 62.8% of people of voting age. Similar to the 2018 midterms, voter turnout rates among Asian American and Latino or Hispanic votes soared. Also, two other groups made up a large part of the voting population, and those two groups were “non-college white voters” meaning white adults who did not graduate from college, and “Gen Z” voters who led to a surge in young adult voter turnout. On the other hand, however, the 2020 presidential election was unique in the fact that increased voter turnout was fueled by a bitter fight between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, leading 83% of registered voters, a record share, to believe that it “really mattered” who won the office of the president as found by a preelection survey. Additionally, despite the controversy surrounding them, mail-in voting rose in prominence at the time of the 2020 presidential election as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on and voters were able to complete the process without having to go to a polling center. When it comes to the 2022 midterm election, voter turnout rates were nearly as high as those of the 2018 midterms, and the rate of voter registration was the highest for a midterm election in at least the last two decades at 69.1% of U.S. citizens age 18 and older.


Discussing Problems Leading to Low Voter Turnout in the United States

After examining increased voter turnout in the past couple of elections, many have asked themselves why they should be concerned about low voter turnout. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of key issues with voter turnout that must be discussed. When referencing the 2018 midterms, one thing that comes to mind is how they were the most racially and ethnically diverse midterms ever. It should be noted that this was particularly important because historically, critics of the United States’ low voter turnout have pointed out structural barriers in the voting system that disenfranchise minorities, decreasing voter turnout among these populations. However, after the increase in voter turnout among these populations during the 2018 midterms, this problem might have not been expected to be a problem anymore. Despite that, during the 2022 midterms, there was a decrease in turnout among youth, Black Americans, women, and white female college graduates, once again creating concerns. Similarly, during the 2022 midterms, there were more registered nonvoters who reported that they “forgot to vote” compared to the 2018 midterms. Also, the most common reason for not voting remained “Too busy, conflicting work or school schedule” as reported by 26.5% of registered nonvoters. This reason was succeeded by "Not interested, felt my vote wouldn't make a difference" as reported by 17.6% of registered nonvoters. These statistics directly oppose the statistic from the 2020 presidential election in which 83% of registered voters, a record share, believed it “really mattered” who won, leading them to vote and overall, increase voter turnout.

Further, another concern about low voter turnout in the United States arises when comparing our rates to those of other countries. Among the mostly high-income countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), turnout in the United States is below average. For example, voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election was 62%, making it 3 percentage points below the OECD average which is 65%. In another study, when comparing voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election against recent national elections in 49 other countries, the United States (62.8%) ranks 31st as it sits between Colombia (62.5%) and Greece (63.5%). This marks a larger problem as researchers fear the United States might continue to stay behind if the problem of low voter turnout isn’t seriously considered.


Conclusion

After examining voter turnout in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections and discussing the problems leading to low voter turnout in the United States, it should be understood that despite “high” voter turnout in recent elections, it’s important that the larger, more serious problems behind the United States’ historic precedent of low voter turnout are considered. More specifically, for voters themselves, fewer structural barriers should exist for women, people of color, and other minorities as well as voters feeling that their vote matters and isn’t just a worthless pawn in a game of chess.


References


Frey, W. H. (2021, May 4). Turnout in 2020 election spiked among both Democratic and Republican voting groups, new census data shows. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/turnout-in-2020-spiked-among-both-democratic-and-republican-voting-groups-new-census-data-shows/

Frey, W. H. (2023, May 18). New voter turnout data from 2022 shows some surprises, including lower turnout for youth, women, and Black Americans in some states. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/new-voter-turnout-data-from-2022-shows-some-surprises-including-lower-turnout-for-youth-women-and-black-americans-in-some-states/

Lo Wang, H. (2023, May 2). Voter turnout for the 2022 elections was the 2nd highest for midterms since 2000. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/05/02/1173306918/midterm-elections-2022-turnout

Nadeem, R. (2023, July 24). Voter turnout in US elections, 2018-2022 | Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/07/12/voter-turnout-2018-2022/

Nishizawa, L. (2022, August 24). How does U.S. voter turnout compare to the rest of the world’s? Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/how-does-us-voter-turnout-compare-rest-worlds

Pew Research Center. (2020, September 23). Voter turnout rose in 2018 across racial, ethnic groups | Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/05/01/historic-highs-in-2018-voter-turnout-extended-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups/

Pew Research Center. (2021, January 28). Record shares of eligible voters turned out for 2020 election | Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/01/28/turnout-soared-in-2020-as-nearly-two-thirds-of-eligible-u-s-voters-cast-ballots-for-president/

Pew Research Center. (2022, December 15). US voter turnout recently soared but lags behind many peer countries | Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/11/01/turnout-in-u-s-has-soared-in-recent-elections-but-by-some-measures-still-trails-that-of-many-other-countries/
















Prerana Kodakandla, Bentonville, 11th Grade, Instagram - @prerana.kodakandla

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