Voter turn out tends to be lower in the United States than in many other developed countries, and tends to be lower in the United States today than it was in previous generations. For some, this is cause for concern, a sign that American democracy isn’t working as it should. Me, not so much. If you consider that one big motivator for voting is fear about what will happen if the wrong guy gets elected, the fact that voter turnout is lower in places like the United States and Switzerland than in other places may be a sign of the strength of our system of government, rather than a signal of its decay. It’s probably also the case that the idiosyncrasies of America’s system of government – we hold elections every two years, but only elect our President every four years – might tend to skew the result (As for why turnout might be lower now than it was prior to 1972, see here).
Until recently, I had thought that there might be another factor serving to drive voter turnout lower than what it otherwise would be: the electoral college. As Al Gore supporters know all too well, the winner in a presidential election is determined not by who wins the popular vote, but by who gets the most votes in the electoral college. In every Presidential races, there are only a small number of “swing states” that actually could be won by one candidate or the other. Most states, particularly in recent times, are “safe,” which is to say that the winner of the popular vote in that state is fairly certain. We might expect, therefore, that turnout would be higher in swing states (where people think that there votes might matter) than in safe states (where the outcome of the election is known in advance) and that this might serve to make total voter turnout lower than it otherwise would be.There’s only one problem with this theory: it appears to be contradicted by the facts. Looking at a state by state breakdown of turnout in recent elections (here is data for 2004, and 2000), there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between states with high turnout rates and states with close races.
I did however, notice a correlation between high voter turnout and another variable: cold weather. States with the highest voter turnout rates (Minnesota, Maine, Alaska, South Dakota, New Hampshire, etc.) tended to be ones where the weather is really cold, whereas states with warmer and/or better weather tend to have lower rates of voter turnout (The state with the lowest turnout rate in 2004? Hawaii). You might think that bad weather would drive down turnout, as people would be less willing to venture out of doors to their polling places if the temperature was 20 below than if it was a nice balmy 72. But just the opposite appears to be the case.
It could just be a fluke, of course. Or maybe better weather raises the opportunity cost of voting (who wants to stand in line at a polling place when you could be enjoying a nice day at the beach). In any event, it would appear that those who want us to worry about the possible effects of global warming may have a new arrow in their argumentative quiver. It’s not just the polar bear, democracy itself may be at risk!