What Factors Influence Voter Turnout?

On a good year, about 60% of eligible voters will make it to the polls for the presidential election. On a bad year, that number can be less than 50%. Midterm elections bring in far fewer voters. Over a billion dollars will be spent during this election cycle. Every winning angle will be exhausted, and the best minds in the business will make every effort to understand voters and invent the mechanisms that will sway their votes in November. But no matter how sophisticated the campaign or how positive the message, there are factors outside the control of candidates and campaigns that influence voter turnout and have the potential to shape elections. Today we will have a look not at ways to get voters to the polls but at the many factors that can keep them at home.

1. Voter demographics

There are endless studies citing the effects of voter demographics on turnout. We will not go into those details here, but any summary explanation of voter turnout should mention these factors. In short, older voters tend to vote more than younger voters. Wealthy and educated voters are more likely to turnout than lower-income voters. More specifically, very low-income voters face more obstacles to voting, such as time away from work and adequate transportation, than those with higher incomes.

2. One-sided states and races

Another important factor that keeps voters at home is apathy. Put another way, voters are far less likely to take part in an election if they feel their vote is wasted. If a race is not competitive, voters on both sides will stay home. They feel that their vote cannot possibly influence the race, so why bother?

3. Two-step voter registration

A common roadblock to voters is the two-part registration system, which requires two events to be completed on different days. Any requirements that cost voters more time or make processes more complicated will have a negative effect on voter turnout.

4. Weather

It is probably no surprise that voters are less likely to make it to the polls when it is raining. In fact, studies have shown that “When compared to normal conditions, rain significantly reduces voter participation by a rate of just less than 1 percent per inch, while an inch of snowfall decreases turnout by almost .5 percent. Poor weather is also shown to benefit the Republican party’s vote share.” It has been argued that weather cost both Richard Nixon and Al Gore an election.

Taken alone, these factors may have a very small impact on any given voter. But taken together, they can create a perfect storm with the power to swing elections. If turnout is already hindered by state laws or uncompetitive races, and the election-day weather is terrible, turnout can be severely affected. What is most important to understand is that, despite the staggering amount of money and effort expended during a presidential election, there are always factors over which candidates and campaigns have little or no control.

Bomboy, S. (2012, October 29). Bad Weather has Track Record of Swinging Some Elections. Retrieved March 2, 2016, from http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2012/10/bad-weather-has-track-record-of-swinging-some-elections/

Voter Turnout. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2016, from http://www.fairvote.org/voter_turnout#voter_turnout_101