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America's Democracy is Exceptional... Because We Don't Participate In It

by Alex Gauthier, published

Pew Research Center survey of 34 countries revealed bad news for the state of democracy in the United States. When compared with countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. placed 31st in voter turnout, behind Slovenia. Turnout was calculated based on the estimated voting-age population from the 2012 general election.

Pew found:

"U.S. turnout in 2012 was 53.6%, based on 129.1 million votes cast for president and an estimated voting-age population of just under 241 million people. Among OECD countries, the highest turnout rates were in Belgium (87.2%), Turkey (86.4%) and Sweden (82.6%). Switzerland consistently has the lowest turnout, with just 40% of the voting-age population casting ballots in the 2011 federal legislative elections, the most recent."

A calculation of U.S. voter turnout based solely on voters who are already registered would disguise the underlying issue of lagging voter participation. If one were to exclude non-registered voters, U.S. turnout in 2012 would be 84.3% of registered voters, but this hides the fact that nearly half of the eligible voting-age population didn't participate.

In March, President Obama entertained the idea of having the U.S. join countries like Belgium in making voting mandatory:

“There are war-torn countries, people full of poverty, who still voted 60, 70 percent. If here in the United States of America, we voted at 60 percent, 70 percent, it would transform our politics. Our Congress would be completely different.” – U.S. President Barack Obama

Since a constitutional amendment would be required to move to such a system, it's unlikely to happen any time soon. What remains, however, is a dearth of civic engagement. 2016 may not be much different than previous election years either. Pew found that turnout in the U.S. tends to be fairly predictable across election cycles.

Since 1980, voting-age turnout has varied within a 9-percentage-point range – from 48% in 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected, to 57% in 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House. (Turnout, of course, varies considerably among different racial, ethnic and age groups.)


Photo retrieved from Richmond Confidential.

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