In 2012, the most recent time Americans voted for president, the country’s population was nearly 313 million, of which about 241 million were at least 18, the legal voting age, according to the most recent data available from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Nearly 194 million Americans — or 80 percent of those eligible — were registered to vote.
In that election, about 67 percent of the country's registered voters cast a ballot. Compare that with the last elections held in several countries: 65 percent in Russia, 68 percent in Canada, and 80 percent in France, according to data gathered by the International Institute for Democracy and Election Assistance.
And when it comes to the elections that shape the nation's Congress, even fewer people vote. In 2014, the most recent year in which a U.S. midterm election took place, only about 43 percent of the nation's registered voters cast a ballot. Compare that with the 66 percent who participated in the United Kingdom’s most recent parliamentary elections and the 60 percent in Russia’s most recent. In Germany’s most recent elections, 71 percent of voters cast a ballot; in France, 55 percent did.
Why are people in the United States less vigilant about voting?
The problem isn’t with all Americans necessarily; it lies with only some American voters. For decades, most political journalists and candidates seeking public office have assumed that those with more education, those with higher incomes, and those who are white, older, married or own a home comprise the nation’s most reliable set of voters.
That description fits voters in municipal elections. It is also true about midterm elections, which take place two years after the presidential election. It’s in these elections that white voters, voters with more education and income, and older voters are dominant forces. Simply put, they show up and vote in relatively substantial numbers while registered lower-income and minority voters don’t.
Most political scientists explain those patterns this way: These are the voters with the most time, the most at stake, and the strongest sense that their opinions and priorities matter. But there are also some significant policies and practices that also shape voter turnout.
A dozen U.S. states either deny voting rights to convicted felons or require convicted felons to petition a court for the restoration of voting rights. The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization, estimates that at least 2.6 million Americans cannot vote because of these laws. The majority of those affected are black or Latino.
Additionally, more than 20 states have voter-identification laws — rules requiring registered voters to supply specific forms of identification at polling sites before they can cast a ballot. To obtain such identification, voters may be required to visit state-run agencies during times when they are scheduled to work – and sometimes fees are involved in order to obtain identification. Political scientists estimate this could affect millions of voters in 2016, the majority of whom are expected to be voters of color.
Election Day in the United States is not a national holiday, and voting isn’t compulsory. The public officials who organize elections typically assign voting machines, polling-location staff and other resources based on past voting patterns. And the place where a voter casts a ballot is usually assigned based on its proximity to a voter’s home address, so most voters cast ballots at locations in their neighborhoods, which are largely homogeneous in the United States.
This means the wealthier white neighborhoods in which voter turnout is consistently larger have more voting machines and on-site staff, which results in shorter lines and wait times. These voters also more likely to work on salary, so they have the luxury of still being paid if they miss work in order to vote.
In poorer neighborhoods in which voter turnout is less consistent, the lines are likely to be longer at polling places if there is a surprise surge in voter interest. And workers who are paid an hourly wage might not have time to wait in long lines, which can make voting a difficult -- and sometimes impossible -- task. A disproportionate share of black and Latino voters are paid by the hour and therefore have to forgo pay in order to vote.
For some minority voters in neighborhoods that lack sufficient polling booths, long lines can feel like a tactic to discourage or block certain people from voting. And given the nation's history of voter suppression aimed at non-white voters, it’s clear why voting can be a complicated political matter across racial lines and why more Americans don’t vote in presidential elections.