America’s “omnibus ballot” is an outlier among democracies and may be driving down voter participation
Contrary to what nearly every observer, and participant, of American elections says, America doesn’t really have low voter turnout. It does have relatively low voter registration and low institutional trust at the moment. We may be able to fix that by asking Americans to vote less, not more. Americans are asked to vote far more than other developed democracies — sometimes more than twice a year and often multiple years in a row — and this may be exhausting the American voter. Maybe Americans don’t register to vote because we’re expected to do too much.
The common story goes something like this: for over a century American voter turnout has been consistently low, inching over 60% of eligible voters not even a handful of times. For the past sixty years, the average turnout for presidential elections is around 55%, to the point that it is a virtual certainty that whomever wins the presidency, up to 75% of eligible voters did not vote for that person. This has inspired countless observers and politicians to suggest that America needs to do more to encourage voter participation. These numbers though obscure the fact that the US does not have low voter turnout, quite the reverse.
The number of registered voters who do vote is in reality among the highest in the world. A consistent 80–90% of registered voters can be relied on to cast a ballot. This is more than than just about every nation in Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and most of the developed world.
The overwhelming majority of Americans who register to vote, do.
But not always.
Sometimes people go to the ballot box and still don’t vote. Specifically, they don’t vote for many local offices. It is common knowledge among pollsters, political scientists, and campaign managers that local voter turnout is lower than national turnout.
And Americans have a lot of voting to do on the local level. Possibly more than any other developed nation.
It turns out that Americans may not only cast ballots more regularly than voters in most other countries, we might also do so with far greater frequency. American voters are asked to vote more and more often than we may appreciate — and this is dragging down participation.
Why don’t people vote?
One of the main reasons given for America’s low registration figures is the perception that registering to vote is difficult: An unnecessarily byzantine system dissuades eligible voters from becoming actual, registered voters.
This argument is undercut by the results of a Pew Research Center analysis of the 2016 election. Pew looked at Census Bureau data and determined that only 4 percent of registered voters did not vote because of “registration problems.” When nearly half of eligible voters choose not to, 4 percent does not indicate a systemic problem with the process of registering to vote.
That America’s judicial system works against many would-be voters is a fact but not when we’re talking about eligible voters. Yes, around 10 percent of adults in Florida have felony convictions making them ineligible to vote. But they are, by definition, not eligible to register to vote so no honest accounting of voter turnout should include them. That felons who have served their time should be allowed to vote (a stance I personally agree with) is not an argument that the voter registration process is filled with obstacles that an average person couldn’t circumnavigate.
Strangely, there is even evidence that making voting easier doesn’t necessarily increase turnout. According to research published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2013, while allowing same day voter registration did increase the voting rate, allowing early voting did the opposite and actually depressed voter turnout.
One of the biggest reasons why people don’t vote or register to vote is that they’re young. In the last forty years, according to the United States Elections Project, turnout for voters under 30 averages less than 30%. For non-presidential years, it hovers around 20%. There are many reasons why but low youth voter turnout is an international trend that no single policy is capable of addressing and is definitely not an American problem.
Voter fatigue is a well-documented phenomenon and another plausible explanation for the lack of voter engagement: they’re tired. In February of this year, KSNV in Las Vegas reported that one third of Nevadan voters were already exhausted by election coverage — nine months before the election. Continuously lengthening campaign seasons are exhausting the electorate. There is also increasing evidence that a significant percentage of voters are disillusioned about the political process as a whole and see no reason to vote, as summarized by sociologist Jennifer Silva about the hundreds of interviews she conducted: “Look at what’s happened in my lifetime, it doesn’t really matter who’s been president. […] No one actually cares about us.”
But why would that make a difference in local elections? Do Americans really hate their mayors or local assembly as much as they do their presidents or congresses?
Beyond the incessant media coverage, vitriolic rhetoric, and seemingly endless electioneering, American voters may have another problem: we’re sick of being asked to vote so much.
The omnibus ballot
It is common knowledge that every four years in the first week of November Americans vote for president and one US Senate seat and every two years for their Congressional representative. Less understood is that these cycles are (mostly, Nebraska is different) duplicated on the state level. Every four years they vote for governor and one state Senate seat and every two years for state House. Even less appreciated is how these cycles are often not only duplicated on the local level but also proliferated into multiple annual elections for even more offices and issues.
For instance, voters in the April 2016 municipal elections in Anchorage, Alaska, were asked to decide on an Assemblymember, School Board member, and over a dozen propositions and bonds — covering everything from capital improvements to a new marijuana sales tax to fire service bonds. In November that year Alaskans chose a president, congressmember, US senator, state senator, and state house representative, decided on two state ballot measures plus whether to retain multiple judges. Over two dozen positions and important issues to vote on in just one year. And there was another municipal election the next year.
In addition to whatever national offices are on the ballot, Americans are regularly asked to vote for mayors, municipal assemblies, county officials, judges, aldermen, sheriffs, district attorneys, treasurers, clerks, school board members, insurance commissioners, and even medical examiners. This isn’t counting the menagerie of ballot measures, voter initiatives, policy propositions, recalls, and bond requests voters will likewise be expected to weigh in on (nor the party primaries that a shrinking minority of people vote in).
There is such a dizzying variety of positions Americans are expected to vote for that researchers from Rice University’s Local Elections in America Project, Harvard University, Vote.org, University of Georgia, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab were unable to help me discover the average number of positions that Americans see on their ballot.
This is in part a symptom of the extreme electoral diversity in the country. Kayla Harris, Senior Communications Associate with Ballotpedia, explained in an email that the number of local offices the average American is expected to vote on “can vary from single digits to dozens of local races; it depends on the number of elected offices in a given area (particularly the number of special districts) and whether or not they stagger the elections for their officeholders.”
Calculating the average local voter turnout, let alone how many offices are on the average ballot, from thousands of disparate polities across the country, is difficult at best and also not something that national governments tend to keep track of apparently. Election officials from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia all were similarly unable to provide me with any such data.
Though unable to provide me with the average number of positions on their local ballots those election officials did confirm that they vote very differently than Americans. “The omnibus US ballot — requiring a vote for a range of offices down to county positions like a ‘soil and water conservation district supervisor’ — is definitely something that would surprise a lot of Australians.” said Evan Ekin-Smyth of the Australian Electoral Commission by email, “It is very different to our experience.”
Voters from several EU countries (including Malta, Germany, the UK, and Italy and, full disclosure, mostly my family and friends) and Canada, were interviewed for this story. None remember ever seeing anything resembling the American “omnibus ballot” and the times they were asked to vote more than once a year or two years in a row were conspicuous outliers.
Almost no Americans vote for any of these positions or people. According to Portland State University’s Who Votes for Mayor? project fewer than 15% of eligible voters actually vote in these local elections. A number that has been getting steadily smaller over the decades said Governing in 2014.
Local US elections are often held on different months so much of the electorate not only has far more people and positions to vote for, they also have more days that they need to take take off of work in order to go cast a ballot. Many researchers, advocates, and politicians from both parties have been suggesting for years that simply realigning local and national politics could substantially increase turnout. As Professor Zoltan L. Hajnal, author of America’s Uneven Democracy: Turnout, Race, and Representation in City Politics, wrote in the New York Times: “In 2016, Baltimore moved to on-cycle elections and its participation soared. Registered voter turnout went from just 13 percent in the last election before the switch to 60 percent in the first on-cycle election.”
However, even after such reforms there remains significant drop-off in voter turnout the further down the ballot you go. In Baltimore’s 2018 election, 324,000 Baltimore citizens voted for governor but only 316,000 for comptroller and only 306,000 for court clerk. This is called ballot roll-off and is a pattern, said Melissa Marschall, professor of political science at Rice University, which seems to be common all over the country: more people vote for mayor than vote for school board than vote for insurance commissioner and so on the farther from the “main offices” you go. Clearly, timing of the elections isn’t everything and voter participation is being stymied by more than researchers and reformers are considering.
Choosing not to choose
The ability to choose is fundamental to both democracy and western culture as a whole, informing everything from supermarkets to the ballot box, but a growing body of research suggests there is a limit to how much choice we can deal with. Too much choice not only doesn’t improve the outcome for consumers, and voters, it may actually be detrimental. Asking people too many questions, offering them too many choices, often stresses people out and ultimately leaves them dissatisfied with their choice as well as the entire process of choosing. (I’m surely not alone in often wanting to tell my server, “I don’t care what kind of bread, just make the damn sandwich.”)
“Research now shows that there can be too much choice; when there is, consumers are less likely to buy anything at all, and if they do buy, they are less satisfied with their selection.” — Harvard Business Review
Switzerland is well-regarded as a model of good governance, consistently scoring in the top ten, and at the beginning of this year was ranked by US News’ Best Countries Report as literally the best country in the world to live in. It may come as a surprise then that, on average, fewer than half of registered Swiss voters actually cast a ballot. During the 2015 national election, as Domhnall O’Sullivan reported in Swissinfo, only 34% of voters went to the polls.
O’Sullivan reported that election researchers pointed to two specific reasons why so few Swiss voters actually bother to participate: frequency and complexity.
The Swiss are asked to vote up to four times a year. Not only on candidates for elected offices on all levels but also on a complicated array of local and national issues, “four times yearly, registered citizens decide on everything from the mundane (should the trees on Geneva’s Plainpalais square be torn down and replanted?) to the momentous (should the country curb immigration from the European Union?).”
It seems unreasonable to expect just about any person to be truly informed about so many different offices, candidates, and positions. We’ve made our elections an intolerable mess while at the same time asking people to participate in them more and more. Americans are exhausted. At a time when trust in just about every American institution, especially political ones, is abysmally low is it unrealistic to suggest that citizens just want government to work? And the more choices you give them, the less invested they become in both the process, players, and outcome? We’ve allowed ourselves to become demoralized because none of us are truly informed.
Maybe Americans have an unrealistic expectation of ourselves. We are somehow supposed to be conversant in tax policies and regulations covering everything from labor to the environment at the local, state, and federal levels. We are supposed to understand everything from climate change to epidemiology. We are asked to differentiate between municipal bond returns of 6.2% over five years and 6.4% over three while also deciding whether or not to ban Chinese products and services. Do we do things like reform police unions to reign in law enforcement or reallocate funding to other methods of community policing? What exactly are the qualifications for a county insurance commissioner or medical examiner?
“[Voting] is a wearing experience for all but the most politically motivated, and that fraction is a small share of the population.” — John Petrocik, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Missouri
Americans want to be responsible but we want to be honest too. And if we’re honest, it’s likely that most of us know a lot less about a lot more than we may want to admit.
“The bottom line,” political scientist John Petrocik, author of multiple books about American politics and elections, including 2019’s The Turnout Myth, explained to me in an email, “is that a conscientious citizen in many places in the US can reasonably expect to be asked to vote for something almost every year, maybe more than once a year, for a wide variety of offices — many of which most voters know next to nothing about. The result is low turnout for most of the lesser offices. That erodes any “voting habit” that might be emerging among most of us, depressing turnout in general because elections are just creating noise for people.”
American voters are nearly universally derided as parochial and uninformed; an endemic ignorance producing an, at best, apathetic electorate. Isn’t it just as likely that we’re burning ourselves out? “We ask voters to make a lot of decisions.” explained political scientist Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a 2016 Science News for Students article which goes on to say, “Getting out to the polls can be a hassle. What’s more, learning about every single issue takes time. If people are asked to vote too often, or choose a position on too many subjects, they might just opt out of the whole process.”
“We have a complicated system and I think that produces fatigue.” — Barry Burden, political scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison
That many Americans have given up on the process of voting seems unarguable; the questions left are why and how do we change that. How do we get more people to register to vote, let alone actually vote?
Or do we even want to? After all, what is the virtue of everyone voting? The number of people voting doesn’t seem to correlate with efficient or effective or trustworthy government. On the other side of the Swiss model stands Belgium, which scores highest on voter turnout, but had no functioning government for over a year, from 2010–2011, a total of 541 days. And again in 2019 too. Belgium is still here and Belgians seem to be no worse for the wear.
Many people don’t want to vote. Maybe that’s okay.
Or maybe we’ve over-complicated things. Maybe we don’t need to vote on every single issue and candidate. Maybe we don’t need to harangue people into voting on things that they reasonably don’t have any clue about or any realistic way of learning about or, equally reasonably, any reason to care about. (What does an insurance commissioner even do?)
Perhaps if we want people to stop opting out we should give them a real reason and means to opt-in. Our schools don’t test students on every subject on the same day at the same time, perhaps our elections shouldn’t expect the average American voter to do the equivalent. The omnibus ballot is sensibly intimidating for many people. Being informed enough to cast a responsible vote on just three or four issues is a full-time job. Asking people busy with jobs, school, kids, spouses, bills, and all the varying stresses of life to also devote significant time, money, and effort into understanding all the minutia of public policy and the details of every candidate and the offices they’re running for might not be a realistic request. Sensible people may respond by refusing to engage with the process at all.
Thomas Brown is a dual citizen of the US and EU, former campaign manager, history teacher, and freelance writer. He writes at The Swamp and is regularly featured in Grunge, Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, and other places. Argue with him on Twitter.