Since the 1960’s, many Americans eligible to vote have not bothered to do so- not even in presidential elections. Low rates of participation in voting have been worrisome to people interested in preserving our democratic traditions. Economists have tried to explain why people didn’t vote. They have suggested that people who chose not to vote were acting rationally in that the costs associated with voting (such as time spent on registration, rearranging work schedules, getting to the polls, and gathering information on the candidates) appeared to outweigh the benefits (influencing the outcome of an election or gaining the satisfaction of being a good citizen). More recently, however, voter-participation rates have gone up again. What has caused the trend to change? Why are more people voting? This lesson will examine factors that affect voter turnout.
Introduce the lesson by telling the students that many people in this country do not vote, even though they are eligible to.Ask the students why it might be that many people do not vote. Discuss their responses briefly.
Then explain that economists also have wondered why people don’t vote. They have studied this question, and many of them say that the reasons for not-voting have to do with costs and benefits. Many Americans don’t vote, these economists say, because it isn’t worthwhile to do so. The costs of voting (for example, time spent learning about the candidates, time taken away from work to get to the polls) outweigh the benefits, so they just don’t vote. Discuss this analysis briefly to make sure the students understand it.
Conclude the introduction by stating that, more recently, things have begun to change. Americans have begun to vote again, in larger numbers. What could be going on here? Why this change? In this lesson, the class will explore these questions.
- Identify some factors that have contributed to low voter turnout in past elections.
- Identify ways of reducing the costs of voting.
- Analyze the increase in voter-turnout rates of the past two presidential elections.
- National Voter Turnout in Federal Elections (1960-2008): This page provides information about voter statistics, including the age of the voters, voter registration, turnout rates, and more.
- Voter Turnout: This site takes a look at trends in presidential elections.
- Youth Voting: This site is an excellent source for information about voting by young people and voting laws and trends.
- 270 to Win: This is an excellent source of information about particular elections and trends in individual states.
- Voting Behavior: This source looks at the implications of voting behavior from the 2004 election.
With the students, take note of background information to elaborate on the introduction: In the presidential election of 1960, voter turnout reached almost 65%, but in the following five elections the percentage decreased at a steady rate. The percentage increased slightly increased in 1984 and 1992 before fell again, reaching a record low in 1996 when less than half (49.1%) of the voting population actually voted. Since then, however, the percentage of eligible U.S. voters who actually vote has increased to its highest percentage since 1968. What caused the downward trend from 1960 to 1996, in which the costs of voting apparently outweighed the benefits? And what contributed to the turn around after 1996, when participation rates for eligible voters began to rise? Direct students to go to https://www.infoplease.com/us/government/elections/national-voter-turnout-in-federal-elections-1960-2014 . Ask:
- What seems to be the pattern of voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections? [The pattern shows the decline of voter turnout in the twentieth century. However, the apparent decline of voter turnout may be the result of a reduction in voter fraud. For example, until the turn of the century, it was easy for party organizations to encourage voters to vote more than once.]
- What other factors might help to explain the trend? [Discuss the students’ responses. If the students don’t mention it, take note of the electoral college. Some Americans may feel that the electoral-college system is unfair, creating inaccurate representations of the voting population. Four times in our history, the presidential candidate who won the popular vote has been defeated in electoral-college voting. The most recent case occurred in 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the presidency to George W. Bush.]
How does this background information square with the economists’ view that votes are influenced by costs and benefits? Let’s take a closer look..
- List some other costs of voting. [Some other costs of voting are voter registration: Many states require voters to register several weeks in advance of elections, time off from work: Elections are held on weekdays; thus many people need to re-arrange work schedules in order to vote, time preparing to vote: Gathering information about the candidates takes time, getting to the polls: Polls may be located in places that are not convenient for some people to get to, time in Line: There is often a line of people waiting to vote at the poll.]
- List some other benefits of voting. [Some other benefits of voting are that there is a chance your vote will make a difference in the outcome of the election. Some recent elections have been very close.You will gain satisfaction from performing your duty as a citizen.]
- Which cost do you think has the most impact on voters? Why?
[Answers will vary.]
- Which benefit do you think has the most impact on voters?[Answers will vary.]
Challenge the students with a task: How might we reduce the costs of voting or increase the benefits? Have the students work with a partner and list as many ideas as they can on a sheet of paper.
[Possible way of reducing the costs of voting:
- Allowing voter registration at the polls on election day.
- Developing electronic voting systems allowing people to vote from their homes.
- Setting up voting booths at workplaces.
- Encouraging more civic groups to offer rides to the polls.
- Holding elections on weekends.
- Allowing voter registration by mail.]
Introduce the factor of age. Explain that in 1972, the minimum age for voting was reduced to 18, opening up voter participation to a more youthful crowd. But since 1972, the youth turnout (18-24) in voting has only exceeded 50% only, in 1972. The population of the United States has increased, and the total number of young people voting has increased accordingly, from 14.5 million in 1972 to approximately 23 million in 2008. Also, from the 2004 to 2008 election, the total number of Americans voting increased by 3.4 million. But did this increase in total voters mean an increase in the percentage of U.S. citizens that voted?
With a steady decline in voter participation rates after 1972, youth voter turnout reached an all-time low in 1996, when only 37% of U.S. citizens aged 18-24 voted. This trend soon ended, however. Youth voter turnout increased to 40% in 2000 and to 47% in 2004. In 2008, it matched the previous high set in 1972, at 52%. Also, since 1996 more Americans aged 25 and older have been voting; the percentage increased from 61% in 1996 to 66% in 2008. Economists offer several explanations of this upward trend. For starters, some states have adopted “Election Day Registration” and these states had three of the top five totals for youth turnout (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine). Also, some states have made progress in locating polls at convenient locations such as at state motor vehicle agencies, thus decreasing costs and increasing voter-participation rates. The cost of voting may also be reduced by programs in which sample ballots and information regarding polling places are mailed out to prospective voters, or distributed door-to-door.
[Note to the teachers: These are only some of the factors that have a bearing on voter turnout. Please regard them as starting points for your lesson, not limits.]
Voter participation is influenced by costs and benefits. State officials can’t do much to increase the benefits voters might derive from voting, but they can do some things to decrease costs. By implementing strategies to decrease costs, officials can increase voter participation rates. When participation rates go up, elections can more accurately reflect the will of the eligible voting population. While this dynamic doesn’t start or end with a particular age group, the participation of young voters clearly has an important impact.
Voter participation rates seem to be lowest when the economy is in good shape. Have the students visit https://www.270towin.com/ and scroll through the ‘Select the Year’ option above the map. Tell them to read through the ‘Issues of the Day’ below the map from 1972 to 2008, looking at the years in which it says the economy is in good shape and the years when it is in bad shape. Also, note other issues that were important during those election years. Then have the students visit https://civicyouth.org/quick-facts/youth-voting/ and compare these dates with the percentage of all citizens voting in ‘Graph 1’.
- What trends do you notice?
[A decline in 18-24, 18-29 year old citizen turnout from 1972-1992. An uptick in the 1992 election followed by a sharp drop in 1996 and 2000. Elections in 2004 and 2008 saw voter turnout rise again closer to the 1992 & 1984 highs.]
- What year appears to have the highest eligible voter turnout?
- What were the ‘issues’ noted during this election?
[Persian Gulf War, Fall of Berlin Wall and Breakup of Soviet Union, Recession]
- What similarities does it share with the 2008 election?
[War and Recession]
- What two consecutive years have the lowest eligible voter turnout?
[1996 and 2000]
- What similar ‘issues’ do these elections have in common?
Have the students print out their note-taker and turn it in.
Have the students use these two websites (https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/voter-turnout-in-presidential-elections and https://news.gallup.com/poll/158399/2012-electorate-looks-like-2008.aspx ) to learn about election turnout rates and the voting behavior that goes along with it. Ask them to write a one-page report reflecting the data that they came across in these articles, as well as other articles they have read for the lesson. Some links within this lesson’s resources will be particularly helpful (in relation to ethnicity, gender, age, etc.). In their papers, the students should identify and explain the factors they see as the most influential in determining voting behavior.