Voter Turnout

Voter turnout in the United States is not very high. In the 2004 election, for example, just over 55 percent of those eligible to vote actually cast their ballots, and that percentage was the highest in almost 30 years. Presidential elections spark maximum voter interest. Voter turnout in midterm elections, when all the seats in the House of Representatives and a third of those in the Senate are contested, drops to as low as 35 percent, and it may be even lower in state and local elections. The United States ranks near the bottom in voter participation among the countries of the world.

The process of registering

Voting in the United States is a two-step process: A person registers to vote at one time and then casts his or her ballot at another. Registering to vote is not easy. A person may have to take time off from work, which is not an appealing idea, especially if pay is docked, and find the place to register. Although registration drives sponsored by the major political parties or groups such as the League of Women Voters help, registration is often catch-as-catch-can. Local campaigns often do not move into high gear until a month before the election. A person deciding to register at that point may find it is too late. A number of states, however, allow people to register up to and on election day; North Dakota has no registration requirement at all.

Voters must re-register whenever they change residences. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also called the Motor-Voter Law, required states to provide voter registration services when adults receive or renew their drivers' licenses. Nevertheless, people who move frequently — such as soldiers, students, and the homeless — still vote at much lower rates than other Americans.

The process of voting

Even people who take the time to register may not vote. Elections are traditionally held on a Tuesday, a workday. While the polls may be open for more than 12 hours — 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., for example — many still find they do not have the time to vote. Absentee ballots are increasingly used, but the voter has to send away for one, fill it in, and mail it back, making sure that all the procedures are followed correctly. Oregon adopted a unique approach: The state did away completely with polling places and only uses mail-in ballots; the result was a dramatic increase in voting. Several states offer mail-in ballots as an option.

News coverage of elections also has an effect. Exit polls and other statistical techniques allow journalists to predict the winner of an election before the polls even close. Already knowing the winner can be a strong disincentive to vote.

Who votes and who doesn't

Political scientists have analyzed voting patterns and have found that older people with more education and higher income tend to be very active politically. Despite the passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment, the group aged 18 to 21 years old has the lowest voting percentage. Potential voters may be satisfied with the way the government is working and see no reason to cast their ballot; something has to be seriously wrong to motivate them to go to the polls. Others are so dissatisfied with all of the candidates in a particular election that the only way they would vote is for "none of the above."