Causes of Low Voter Turnout

Non-Holiday, Weekday Elections

“The structure of the voting process—including the days before Election Day required to register, vote by mail, or early voting—has been shown to be an important effect on aggregate level turnout.” Cortina and Rottinghaus, 2019

In many other democratic countries, elections are held on weekends or are national holidays.  Elections in Texas (and in the U.S. in general), however, fall on weekdays and are not recognized as national holidays.

Early voting (allowing voters to cast their ballots prior to election day) and absentee voting (where a voter does not have to be physically present to cast a ballot) can help decrease the costs associated with voting because they provide voters with alternative options to voting on election day.  Texas utilizes early voting and absentee voting by mail.

State Laws Regulating the Electorate

Regulating the electorate refers to the process by which the rules of election are set to make it easier to or harder to vote.  States may regulate the electorate by enacting laws regarding voter registration rules, voter identification requirements, and voting locations.  State laws that are thought to reduce the costs of voting, thereby making it easier to vote, are thought to result in higher voter turnout, whereas states laws that make it more difficult to vote often produce lower voter turnout.  Research supports this conclusion for the most part, although research on voting locations is mixed: although research has traditionally suggested that geographic location of polling places affects voter turnout, Cortines and Rottinghaus (2019) found that “the impacts [of centralized voting centers] on voting may be non-uniform and may positively affect turnout in locations or elections where turnout is somewhat likely or counties are smaller (where voters are more likely to be homogeneous).”

The figure below illustrates the ease of voting in different states based on cost of voting index values during the 2016 election.  According to this study, Texas is ranked 46th out of 50th.  During that same election, Texas ranked 48th out of 51 (50 states + District of Columbia) in voter turnout.

Cost of voting in states, 2016SOURCE: NIU Newsroom, Northern Illinois University, 2018

Voter Fatigue

As we discussed previously, Texas has a lot of elections, and Texans directly elect a lot of public officials.  The frequency of our elections, combined with our use of the long ballot, can result in voter fatigue, which can have a negative impact on voter turnout.  Straight-ticket voting (when voters are given the ability to cast their ballots for candidates of only one party – generally with a single selection on the ballot) can reduce voter fatigue and roll-off (when voters do not make a selection for every contest on the ballot).  As you may suspect based on our discussion of voting behavior, when voters are given the opportunity to utilize straight-ticket voting, they will (party identification is the most heavily relied on heuristic, after all).

Straight-ticket voting is not without its critics.  Some argue that straight-ticket voting in Texas works against the rationale of using long ballots because voters may simply select one box without reviewing the candidates running for specific office, raising questions about whether these are informed voting choices.  The straight-ticket “one-punch-and-you’re-done” approach can also result in voters inadvertently skipping items on the ballot that correspond to noncandidate elections or nonpartisan elections.

“Texas Republican lawmakers championed a change to the law during the 2017 legislative session, arguing it would compel voters to make more-informed decisions because they would have to make a decision on every race on a ballot” (Samuels, 2020).  Even though many states do not allow state-ticket voting, the decision to eliminate this option came under challenge from members of the Democratic party, who filed a lawsuit to block the removal of straight-ticket voting from Texas ballots.  “Less than three weeks before early voting [began] in Texas, a U.S. district court . . . blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option” (Samuels, 2020).

Attitude Changes

Political efficacy refers to citizens’ faith and trust in government and their belief that they can understand and influence political affairs.  Theoretically, the higher the political efficacy of an electorate, the higher voting turnout will be among that electorate.  Political efficacy is relatively low in the U.S.:

“When asked which statement comes closer to their own views, most Americans (58%) say that “voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things,” while fewer (39%) say “voting by people like me doesn’t really affect how government runs things.”

The public is somewhat more skeptical when it comes to the ability of ordinary citizens to influence the government in Washington. Half (50%) say ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington, if they are willing to make the effort, while about as many (47%) say there’s not much ordinary citizens can do to influence the government.” (Pew Research Center, 2015)

Partisanship, or belief in and affiliation with a political party, also impacts voting turnout.  Partisanship can increase voting turnout because it is rooted in group attachment, which can serve as a powerful motivator to engage in behavior that is anticipated or viewed favorably by the group (i.e., voting for party candidates) and reduces the costs associated with decision-making by providing a mental shortcut when voting for candidates.  Although polarization and hyperpartisanship are present in our current political system, party identification has decreased over time (see Party-in-the-Electorate).

Rationality of Voting

Downs’s economic theory of voting, also referred to as Downs’s paradox or the voting paradox, asks whether it is rational to vote.  Down’s paradox can be represented by the equation:

R = B – C

Where R represents a rational vote to choice, B represents benefits of voting, and C represents costs of voting

If the benefits outweigh the costs of voting, the individual makes a rational decision to vote.  If, however, the costs outweigh the benefits, the individual makes a rational decision to not vote.

For some, not voting may be the rational choice.  Voting is an activity with virtually no gratification.  The costs of voting will likely outweigh the benefits if there is a lack of attractive choices in candidates for office and/or if there is too much complexity in the voting process (locating polling place; waiting in line; length of ballot; etc.).

The video below explores Downs’ paradox in more detail.

Other Causes of Low Turnout

Other causes of low turnout in the U.S. include:

  • decreasing general voter mobilization by political parties (particularly at the local-levels of the party organization)
  • a decline in social connectedness, or how well people are integrated into the society in which they live
  • generational changes

Political Parties: The Basics

Political parties are fairly well-structured organizations that are committed to a set of policies and principles, are led by party professionals, have clearly defined membership requirements, have centralized control over party nominations and financing, and have the power to exercise substantial discipline over party members who hold political office.  Political parties perform numerous functions that help support popular sovereignty and political equality, including ensuring competitive elections by recruiting candidates for public office, organizing and running elections, presenting alternative policies to the electorate, representing a broad range of groups, stimulating political interest, accepting responsibility for operating the government, and acting as the organized opposition to the party in power.

Political parties consist of three components:

  1. party-in-the-electorate, which refers to members of the general public who identify with a political party or who express a preference for one party over the other
  2. party organization, which is the formal structure and leadership of a political party, including election committees, local, state, and national executives, and paid professional staff
  3. party-in-government, which consists of all the elected and appointed officials who identify with a political party

Party-in-the-Electorate

By fostering a sense of loyalty with portions of the electorate, a party can insulate itself from changes in the system and improve its odds of winning elections and shaping public policy outcomes.  This is where the party-in-the-electorate, which is responsible for voting for a political party’s candidates during primary and general elections, comes into play.

A political party’s party-in-the-electorate is composed of many diverse and independent groups and individuals, including:

  • party identifiers, or members of the electorate who publicly represent themselves as being members of the party, and
  • independents who do not consider themselves to be members of a political party but tend to lean in the direction of one of the major political parties

Party identification is the byproduct of political socialization and is influenced by various factors, including (but not limited to) race, ethnicity, family, region, ideology, and religious beliefs.

Graph showing results of Gallup poll on party affiliation in the United States, 1989-2017

Over the past several decades, partisanship, or belief in and affiliation with a political party, has been declining.  Today, Americans are less likely to identify with a political party and are more likely to consider themselves independents.  We see this phenomenon playing out in our state.  When looking at Texas’s voting-age population in 2021:

Pie chart depicting party identification among Texas's voting age population, 2021
Party Identification, Texas Voting Age Population.  From Haag (2021)
  • 29% consider themselves strong or weak Democrats
  • 9% consider themselves to be Democratic-leaning independents
  • 31% consider themselves to be independents
  • 7% consider themselves to be Republican-leaning independents
  • 24% consider themselves to be strong or weak Republicans

This declining party affiliation has changed how political parties approach their goal of fostering a sense of political loyalty within the electorate, which has in turn impacted campaigns and elections.

Party Organization

The party organization is responsible for coordinating party behavior and supporting party candidates.  It consists of three levels: the national party organization, the state party organization, and local party organizations (which includes precincts and counties).

The national party organization is far more visible than are the state and local party organizations; however, each level of the party organization plays important, distinct roles (summarized in the table below).

Local (Precinct & County) Organizations State Organization National Organization
Mobilize voters and donors Mobilizes voters and donors (greater fundraising responsibilities than local organizations) Engages in fundraising

 

Identify and train potential candidates for local offices Identifies and trains potential candidates for state office and to represent the state in national government (i.e., Congress); helps candidates prepare for state primaries Identifies and trains potential presidential candidates
Recruit new members of the party Creates a sense of unity among the party-in-the-electorate within the state

 

Tries to coordinate and direct the efforts of Congress
Find volunteers for Election Day Hosts conventions where local delegates discuss the needs in their respective areas and select delegates for the national party convention Coordinate national conventions, where the parties formally nominate candidates for the offices of president and vice president
  Drafts the state party platform  Drafts the national party platform

Party platform = document that outlines the policies, positions, and principles of the party and serves as guides to elected officials who form part of the party-in-government)

A Closer Look: Party Organization in Texas

In Texas, the state party organization and local party organizations consist of the temporary party organization and the permanent party organization.

Figure depicting Texas's temporary and permanent party organizations

Temporary Party Organization

The temporary party organization of each party assembles for a few hours or days in general election years to allow rank-and-file party supporters a chance to participate in the party’s decision-making process.  Citizens who voted in the primary election are eligible to participate in the precinct convention of the party in whose primary they voted.  The main business of precinct conventions is to elect delegates to the county and district conventions.  The main business of the county or district convention is to select delegates to the state convention. The number of delegates an election precinct may send to the county or district convention, or that a county or district convention may send to a state convention, depends on the size of the vote in that precinct for the party’s candidate in the last governor’s election.

The Republican and Democratic parties hold their state conventions in June.  State conventions perform several functions, including certifying party nominees for the general election, electing the state party chairperson and vice-chairperson, choosing members of the state executive committee, and selecting individuals to serve on the national party executive committee.  During presidential election years, state conventions also select delegates to the national party convention and name a slate of potential presidential electors to cast the electoral college votes for Texas should the party’s presidential candidate carry the state in the November general election.

Permanent Party Organization

Each party has a permanent party organization that operates year-round.

At the base of the permanent party organization are the precinct and county chairpersons, who coordinate and conduct primary elections by setting up and staffing polling places on Election Day.

The county executive committee is the next highest level of the permanent party organization.  The county executive committee receives filing petitions and fees from primary election candidates for countywide offices, places candidates’ names on the ballot, and arranges county and district conventions.

The state executive committee is the highest level of party organization in the state.  It includes the party chair and vice-chair and committee persons representing each of the state’s 31 electoral districts.  The state executive committee certifies statewide candidates for the spring primary, arranges state party conventions, raises money for party candidates, and promotes the party.  The state party chairs serve as media spokespersons for their respective parties.

Party-in-Government

The primary responsibility of the party-in-government is to achieve a political party’s policy goals.

Political parties determine the means through which their goals will be achieved: Republicans hold party conferences and Democrats hold party caucuses to discuss policy priorities, legislation, and strategies.  At the national level, key Congressional leadership positions, such as the party leaders and party whips, reinforce the strength of the party-in-government in the policymaking process.  Similar positions can be found within Texas’s state government, as well.

Party-in-government is not always effective in translating party platforms into policy actions, however.  Our system of separation of powers and federalism makes it difficult to maintain party loyalty as elected officials are often responsible to different constituencies who may share competing interests.  Not all political candidates who have the endorsement of a political party run on that political party’s platform; often, candidates have their own ideas and beliefs concerning various social and economic interests that diverge from those in the official platforms adopted at state and national conventions.  There are also structural characteristics that make it difficult to achieve party unity at both the national level (i.e., the committee structure and the Senate filibuster) and at the state level (i.e., the creation of a plural executive and the short regular sessions and “no party” organization of the Texas legislature).  Indeed, our political parties seldom behave as responsible parties that take a clear stand on issues within distinctive party platforms and then translate those beliefs and ideas into actions once elected, as outlined in the responsible party model.  Instead, they tend to follow the rational party model: political parties endorse candidates for office in hopes those candidates will represent that party and its interests.