The basis for democracy is the power of people to express their decisions freely and to support their candidates, thus changing the scope of development of the whole country. The rate of participation of ordinary people in politics and the extent to which they are able to affect politics can be regarded as the primary measures of democracy.
The most popular form of political participation in the US is voting. However, there is a clear trend to decreasing voter turnout in the USA during already a century. The highest voter turnout of 81.8% took place during the presidential elections in 1876 (Streb 18). Since that time, there has been a declining trend, and for the 2008 presidential elections average voter turnout was 57.37% (Streb 24). This means that almost half of the eligible population did not express their opinion in the campaign.
The supposed causes of low voter turnout differ from indifference and political disengagement due to the belief in low effectiveness of individual voting in the current system to the effect of satisfaction and contentment of citizens (Fife 58). Anyway, even if low voter turnout is the result of contentment with the current politics, this tendency might have a negative effect on the future of the nation (as the majority of people will pass on the right to decide their destiny to more active social groups). It should be noted that among major democracies the rates of voter turnout are significantly higher: for example, in European countries the average rate is around 80%, and even developing countries such as the Philippines and Yugoslavia have turnout about 70%. Canadian voter turnout also is close to 70% (Schmidt, Shelley, Bardes and Ford 324). Thus, it is important to ensure that all eligible voters are able to make their vote, to determine the causes of lowering voter turnout and to eliminate possible obstacles for voters or to address political issues hindering voter turnout.
The factors affecting voter turnout can be classified into three groups: individual, institutional and political factors (Schmidt, Shelley, Bardes and Ford 318). Individual factors affecting turnout are age (Americans reaching retirements are most likely to vote), educational attainment, minority status, income level, cultural preferences and the rate of competition between two parties in the state (Streb 26). Institutional factors directly affect voting incentives of individual citizens; these might be state regulations for voting, voting registration laws, compulsory voting, etc. Political factors relate to the effect of political institutions on the incentives of political parties or candidates to pursue their campaigns and to mobilize voters.
Analysis of voting trends and procedures in the US and in other democracies shows that major causes of lower turnout are in the specific procedures and election laws related to scheduling elections and registration of citizens for the voting procedure (Fife 67). In most western democracies, the registration is performed mostly automatically or is performed by state agents, while in the US it is the individual responsibility of the citizen to register for voting. In most states, the voters should register early before elections, and they cannot vote outside of their registered locations. There are multiple issues with absentee voting, and many people cannot get to vote because voting takes place during a weekday (Schmidt, Shelley, Bardes and Ford 315). In comparison, in most European countries elections take place in the weekend. Furthermore, frequent elections and lengthy campaigns distract the attention of voters and reduce the degree of political participation. The interest of political parties in voter turnout at the local level in US is weak compared to major democracies as well (Schmidt, Shelley, Bardes and Ford 323).
There are several recommendations for the electoral reform which could be implemented to increase voter turnout. First of all, it is necessary either to remove the requirement for citizens to register for the campaigns, or to automate it maximally. It is necessary to set the elections on the weekend, and to ensure that all categories of people can be registered and will be able to vote, i.e. citizens who just celebrated 18, frequently traveling citizens and citizens engaged in 24-hour shifts (unable to access voting), citizens who cannot get to vote because of physical condition, etc. Last-day registration, car stops and other convenient locations for registration might be used to solve this problems. Furthermore, the campaigns should not be lengthy (no longer than 1 month), because the amount of information and mass media attack often discourage many voters. Thirdly, it is necessary to synchronize presidential and local elections in order to avoid voting every year in some states. Finally, it might be useful for state institutions to cooperate with other organizations such as educational institutions, churches, unions, nonprofit organizations etc. in order to encourage voters to participate in the elections.
Fife, Brian L. Reforming the electoral process in America: toward more democracy in the 21st century. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
Schmidt, Stephen W. and Mack S. Shelley, Barbara A. Bardes, Lynne E. Ford. American Government and Politics Today 2011-2012 Edition. Cengage Learning, 2011.
Streb, Matthew J. Rethinking American electoral democracy. Taylor & Francis, 2011.