The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RIP ‘American Idol’: The show that proved how bad Americans are at voting

Singer Keith Urban, singer and actress Jennifer Lopez, and singer Harry Connick, Jr. arrive on set of "American Idol" in Los Angeles in December. Fox announced announced Monday, May 11, 2015 that "American Idol" will go off the air after its 15th and final season next spring. (Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)
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"American Idol" is dead, but democracy is alive.

Fox announced its singing competition will end after its 15th season next year. It's long been a peg for jokes about voting and American democracy, even in its twilight. Just last week, I got a tweet about how Americans only vote when "American Idol" is on, after publishing a story on low voter turnout is in the U.S. compared with the rest of the world. But is there actually any truth to it?

It turns out there might be, but only with some big caveats. Voting numbers was one thing Idol had going for it even as viewership tumbled and it stopped producing chart-topping pop stars. In fact, from 2006 to 2012, the number of votes more than doubled to 132 million. That's more than the number of votes cast in the 2012 election.

Here's what those numbers look like side-by-side. There are some missing years; Idol voter data could not be located for 2005 and 2010, and in 2013 and 2014, Ryan Seacrest, who usually announced the figures during the show, did not do so.

So yes, Idol voting exploded even as the show stumbled. But like I said, there are some big asterisks to those numbers. The most glaring is Idol voters could vote more than once, which explains how fewer people were watching while the show kept breaking voting records every year. In 2008, for example, the average Idol voter voted via text message 38 times, according to Nielsen Mobile. It's the fear of stuff like that happening in real elections that keeps state lawmakers concerned with voter ID laws in Georgia up at night.

The show also made several tweaks over the years to make it easier to vote, including adding an app. In 2003, it doubled the window in which votes were eligible from two hours to four hours, and it added additional phone lines so voters would get fewer busy signals (remember that?).

So while "American Idol" did technically get more votes than all the votes cast in the last presidential election, it's numbers were greatly inflated beyond its actual viewership numbers.