Five Myths About Turning Out the Vote

Michael P. McDonald
Michael P. McDonald Former Brookings Expert, Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Florida

October 29, 2006

If you’re an upstanding U.S. citizen, you’ll stand up and be counted this Election Day, right? Well, maybe not. Just because Americans can vote doesn’t mean they do. But who shows up is what decides the tight races, which makes turnout one of the most closely watched aspects of every election — and one that has fostered a number of myths. Here are five, debunked:

1. Thanks to increasing voter apathy, turnout keeps dwindling.

This is the mother of all turnout myths. There may be plenty of apathetic voters out there, but the idea that ever fewer Americans are showing up at the polls should be put to rest. What’s really happening is that the number of people not eligible to vote is rising — making it seem as though turnout is dropping.

Those who bemoan a decline in American civic society point to the drop in turnout from 55.2 percent in 1972, when 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote, to the low point of 48.9 percent in 1996. But that’s looking at the total voting-age population, which includes lots of people who aren’t eligible to vote — namely, noncitizens and convicted felons. These ineligible populations have increased dramatically over the past three decades, from about 2 percent of the voting-age population in 1972 to 10 percent today.

When you take them out of the equation, the post-1972 “decline” vanishes. Turnout rates among those eligible to vote have averaged 55.3 percent in presidential elections and 39.4 percent in midterm elections for the past three decades. There has been variation, of course, with turnout as low as 51.7 percent in 1996 and rebounding to 60.3 percent by 2004. Turnout in the most recent election, in fact, is on a par with the low-60 percent turnout rates of the 1950s and ’60s.

2. Other countries’ higher turnout indicates more vibrant democracies.

You can’t compare apples and oranges. Voting rules differ from nation to nation, producing different turnout rates. Some countries have mandatory voting. If Americans were fined $100 for playing voter hooky on Election Day, U.S. participation might increase dramatically. But in fact, many people with a ballot pointed at their head simply cast a blank one or a nonsense vote for Mickey Mouse.

Moreover, most countries have national elections maybe once every five years; the United States has presidential or congressional elections every two years. Frequent elections may lead to voter fatigue. New European Union elections, for instance, seem to be depressing turnout in member countries. After decades of trailing turnout in the United Kingdom, U.S. turnout in 2004 was on a par with recent British elections, in which turnout was 59.4 percent in 2001 and 61.4 percent in 2005.

Americans are asked to vote more often — in national, state, local and primary contests — than the citizens of any other country. They can be forgiven for missing one or two elections, can’t they? Even then, over the course of several elections, Americans have more chances to participate and their turnout may be higher than that in countries where people vote only once every five years.

3. Negative ads turn off voters and reduce turnout.

Don’t be so sure. The case on this one is still open. Negative TV advertising increased in the mid-1980s, but turnout hasn’t gone down correspondingly. The negative Swift boat campaign against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) apparently did little to depress turnout in the 2004 presidential race.

Some academic studies have found that negative advertising increases turnout. And that’s not so surprising: A particularly nasty ad grabs people’s attention and gets them talking. People participate when they’re interested. A recent GOP attack ad on Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), a Senate candidate, has changed the dynamic of the race, probably not because it changed minds or dissuaded Democrats, but because it energized listless Republicans.

We’ll have to wait to see whether the attack on Ford backfires because voters perceive it as unfair. That’s the danger of going negative. So campaigns tend to stick to “contrast ads,” in which candidates contrast their records with those of their opponents. When people see stark differences between candidates, they’re more likely to vote.

4. The Republican “72-hour campaign” will win the election.

Not necessarily. You can lead citizens to the ballot, but you can’t make them vote.

Republicans supposedly have a super-sophisticated last-minute get-out-the-vote effort that identifies voters who’ll be pivotal in electing their candidates. Studies of a campaign’s personal contact with voters through phone calls, door-to-door solicitation and the like find that it does have some positive effect on turnout. But people vote for many reasons other than meeting a campaign worker, such as the issues, the closeness of the election and the candidates’ likeability. Further, these studies focus on get-out-the-vote drives in low-turnout elections, when contacts from other campaigns and outside groups are minimal. We don’t know what the effects of mobilization drives are in highly competitive races in which people are bombarded by media stories, television ads and direct mail.

Republican get-out-the-vote efforts could make a difference in close elections if Democrats simply sat on the sidelines. But this year Democrats have vowed to match the GOP mobilization voter for voter. So it’ll take more than just knowing whether a prospective voter owns a Volvo or a BMW for Republicans to eke out victory in a competitive race.

5. Making voter registration easier would dramatically increase turnout.

Well, yes and no.

In 1993, the Democratic government in Washington enacted “Motor Voter,” a program that allowed people to register to vote when they received their driver’s license or visited a welfare office. Democrats thought that if everyone were registered, turnout rates would increase — by as much as 7 percentage points.

But while many people registered to vote, turnout didn’t go up much. Subsequent studies found only small increases in turnout attributable to Motor Voter, perhaps 2 percentage points.

Sizable increases in turnout can be seen in states with Election Day registration, which allows people to register when they vote. This may be related to the fact that lots of people don’t make up their minds to vote until Election Day, rather than months in advance when they get a license.