189 - US election turnout

As one of my few American friends commented in an email last week, one might be aware of an election. He actually wrote, “ There is an election here... not the 6-week cycle you have in the UK... but a beauty contest of sorts.”

There is no easy way, short of living outside your own nation, to know how thoroughly an election is covered elsewhere. I can say that I have been made very much aware of the impending US election for about the last year. I wonder how you feel about this.

What has been attracting my attention is how low the turnout is in the US. As with the UK, the USA is pretty good at letting you have access to data. The biggest vote that occurs in the US is for the presidential elections, not to be confused with things that have a (far) lower turnout. It is much the same in the UK, where the lesser event would be (local) council elections. Just to explain to non-Brits, we elect our Member of Parliament by voting for a person in a party. The party with the most elected MPs tries to form a government from those elected (easy if they have an absolute majority). We do not vote for our Prime Minister, however the media portray the elections. It is difficult in Britain to be a voter for an individual—you’d have to join a political party and I don’t think you can join more than one. If you did that, you’d have a vote for an individual to become your MP. In the case of some parties such as Labour, you’d also have a vote for the party leader.

Voting in Britain is open to all over 18 (which we are considering revising downwards to 16) and you can lose your vote by various means, but that accounts for very few people. In principle uk.gov chases people up to give them a vote. You have a vote if living abroad (for less than 15 years); you don’t have a vote if you’re in prison; you don’t have a vote if you’re declared unable to exercise suitable judgement (which I have interpreted as ‘otherwise incarcerated’).

In the US some of the situation is reversed. You have to go register to vote, a demonstrably non-trivial exercise. We need to distinguish (in the US) between (i) being of voting age, (ii) being a US citizen and (iii) being a voter. These are three successively smaller numbers. Political scientists refer to voting age population, VAP, and voting eligible population, VEP—those actually able to exercise a vote.

What most turnout data shows is % vote of registered electors, ie votes/VEP, which is already a subset of the citizen population. Example, 2014: 240 million VAP, 220 million citizens of voting age who could have registered, a significantly smaller number registered to vote and 92 million of these voted. I found these numbers not equally recorded. What follows is here is from electproject.org, numbers in millions to the nearest tenth:
                     2014  VAP 245.7       VEP 227.2     Total ballots counted 83.3,   Highest office ballots 81.7
So the turnout was 36% or 33% depending which base you choose. BUT this VEP takes no regard of who is actually registered to vote. PolSci term not found.
The preferred turnout rates are those calculated with the voting-eligible population as the denominator. The voting-eligible population (VEP) represents an estimate of persons eligible to vote regardless of voter registration status in an election and is constructed by modifying the voting-age population (VAP), by components reported in the right-most columns (scroll right in the spreadsheet).
This is including the 7.6 million US citizens overseas, who have to do a bit more work to exercise a vote. Some states disenfranchise (deny the vote to) felons in various categories.

And at last I can find a number for voters from here, statisticbrain, which says
                   2012  VEP 219.0, registered 146.3, voted in 2012 Presidential election 126.1
that is, on just these figures, voting might be high, at 86% of the registered population, or seen to be genuinely low at 57% of those who could have registered. 57% is equal to the lowest turnout in Britain for a general election (the year Blair returned as PM).

Do not confuse these figures with the ‘votes’ total as cast by the electoral colleges; those numbers represent the number of voters represented by the college representatives, not the votes cast for those representatives. In the same way, if only 51% of those who vote elect an MP in the UK but that happens to 400 of the 630 seats, the winning party has a vast majority, elected by a small difference repeated many times. As it happens, usually a 40% vote is enough to determine a winner.

The reason to quote presidential elections is because this is the one with the highest turnout and I suspect the most readily available figures. US sources give a great deal of sub-data, breaking voting down by age, ethnicity, income and educational state. I found evidence from LSE that the US sees a correlation between years of learning and likelihood to vote (more years, more likely to vote) but that this is not so in the UK, for which they point to obstructions to voting in the US. Significantly, a project to increase educational years did not affect voting behaviour. Barriers to voting can be explored here, and I quote selectively:

The timeframe individuals are allotted to register to vote is not the only obstacle preventing Americans from voting, it is one of many. Co-Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, Kristen Clarke, ... provided examples of several barriers to voting, among them the implementation of mandatory identification and “purge” programs by states, the failure of designated registration entities to carry out their responsibilities, and the use of voter suppression tactics.
The implementation of mandatory identification regulations has a disparate impact on underprivileged and minority voters who lack access to the forms of identification required. States who have adopted or are attempting to adopt mandatory voter identification requirements allege to be combating voter fraud despite a severe lack of evidence that voter fraud exists or poses a threat. Instead of protecting the integrity of political participation, strict identification requirements harm it by disenfranchising eligible voters. 
In many jurisdictions, DMVs and other social service agencies are failing to carry out their responsibility to make voter registration opportunities available as required by The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).  As a result, tens of thousands of otherwise eligible individuals miss a critical opportunity to register to vote.
Further compounding the problem is the fact that many individuals with criminal convictions are frequently unaware of their eligibility to register to vote, as laws vary greatly by state. The confusion over the impact of felon disenfranchisement laws frustrates efforts to create an environment of robust political participation for all Americans.

This site goes on to describe behaviour at the point of voting which strikes me as grossly improper and arguably undemocratic (in that it prevents democracy from occurring). This is not acceptable behaviour from a country which purports to have opinions on the democracy of other states.

I tried to explore the situation of US recent elections and found some conflicts.

For example, Pew Research has a webpage that shows 1 in 6 of votes were somehow not recorded. Determining who actually went to the polls and who did not is a challenge because, while the presence of a record of voting almost certainly means that a person voted, the absence of a record doesn’t necessarily mean they did not. Unh? It depends where you collect data from, and when sources are not common we should expect there to be mismatch. This site goes on to correlate being relatively poor with over-reporting their voting. It is easy for ‘the system’ to lose touch with someone who has moved (it is a lot of work to maintain a database and it is hard to persuade the state to fund that unless and until mechanisms are put in place to force the records to occur [helped in Britain by a high proportion of owned, lived-in property]. Quoting Pew again, ...those who have lived at least five years at their current residence are significantly more likely to have their self-reported vote match the voter record than those who have a shorter residential tenure (12% vs. 26%). Renters (27%) are twice as likely as homeowners (13%) to say they voted but to not have a record of voting. Pew explores a variety of aspects of voting habits or their lack, including this page on non-voters, which looks at the 60% of VAP that won’t vote. See inset graphic. They’re younger, they’re racially and ethnically diverse, they’re less affluent and less educated. About half of this population does, by various measures, look to be disenfranchised, one way or another.  I recommend looking at the linked page.

This is a dire situation for the US. What it says to me is that the government (the elected political element) is NOT fully representative of its populace, but of the active half or so that voted. One could argue that it is ever thus, but I see something like a quarter of the US VEP effectively excluded. Not good.

I find this situation alarming. In Britain we are alarmed by what we call voter apathy, having a vote and failing to exercise it. In a first-past-the-post [FPTP] system I have a single mark to make to cast my vote; my vote is within walking distance of home (at worst I’ve had a 5 minute drive); the polling station is quiet, business-like and very serious. I don’t have to take a polling card because if voting at my home location I am already on the list—at least once I have carried no documents to prove that I am who I say I am but was known to the officials. Britain has some odd ideas about paper proof of who you are, generally distinguishing between the paper and the person [is it me you want to see, or my passport? Which is allowed across a border?]. On the downside, if I live in a constituency with a traditional and large majority, as I currently do, then my vote has virtually no effect whichever way I cast it. To be politically effective I need to go meet my MP and engage even more actively. As I have written before recently, this last election was the first time I have had a vote and not already met the incumbent. My current MP represents me whether or not I voted for her; it is up to me to engage. Or not. I do not see that I have much choice to not-vote. Indeed, I see it as all the more important to vote in council elections, European elections and referenda, where the result is far less certain and the turnout lower, so my vote is relatively more significant.  Turnout in Britain generally varies between 55% and 75%.


This page (above) from Pew Research shows the gap between registered voters and VAP across nations. Look at the space between the two blobs. Some of these countries have compulsory voting (i.e. it is some sort of offence to not-vote). Circumstances for failing to be registered for voting vary widely, but typical situations arise from moving residence or being away from one’s usual residence (and failing to have done those things that preserve one’s ability to vote). An issue with postal voting in Britain is that this can easily result in a biased vote [Imagine: family sitting round a table with voting forms and immediate ‘peer’ pressure to conform with the loudest opinion. Authority figure demands all vote his way. Me, sexist? To me, this is failure of democracy. Do your own research on this, please.] 

Of course, what is at issue for me is voter participation. To my way of thinking, we should be encouraging all of every population to be active politically or to make a conscious decision to be inactive, not a move made out of apathy. I understand that for many of us we largely don’t care what our representatives think, in a leave-me-alone sort of way. That works while those who are active generally agree with your own views and while those who do the representation engage in ways that makes them appreciate what is right and wrong in their local area. View the variety of systems for registering a vote at wikipedia, please.   Read there how the UK system is in need of up updating; the US has a different range of problems; compare both of these with the Australian and Canadian systems.

DJS 20160405

http://cee.lse.ac.uk/ceedps/ceedp108.pdf     connecting education and turnout
http://www.statisticbrain.com/voting-statistics/   read why people (say they) don’t vote

© David Scoins 2017