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

Texans’ Differences: Political Ideology in the Lone Star State

People often reflect on what makes Texas, Texas by focusing largely on our similarities (i.e., our shared political culture).  It would be inappropriate, however, to assume that differences in beliefs, values, and ideas did not exist, particularly in a state with a large population, vast geography, and complex history like Texas.  As such, here we will focus on where our differences lie: political ideology.

Political Ideology: What Divides Us

Political ideology is the coherent set of values and beliefs about the purpose and scope of government.  Political ideologies represent differences that exist within a political culture.  Political ideologies perform four key functions:

  1. Explanation: political ideology helps explain why social and political conditions are the way they are
  2. Evaluation: political ideology provides standards for evaluating social conditions and political institutions and events
  3. Orientation: political ideology provides a sense of identity
  4. Political program: political ideology helps people make political choices

Political ideologies in the United States fall at various points along an ideological spectrum that ranges from liberal (which prioritizes equality in society) to conservative (which prioritizes government control over personal freedoms).  Ideologies at the ends of the spectrum are the most extreme: communism is considered extremely liberal, and fascism is considered extremely conservative.  The closer to the middle of the spectrum an ideology falls, the more moderate it is.  Most people in the U.S. fall into two ideologies:

  • conservatives, which generally favor limited government in social and/or economic life, based on the belief that a big government can only infringe on our individual, personal, and economic rights (a government is best that governs least)
  • liberals, which generally views government action as necessary to ensure people are as free as possible and believe government should protect individual liberties and rights and provide social services based on equality

Conservative ideology is generally status-quo-oriented.  Liberal ideology, on the other hand, tends to view change as progressive and, at times, necessary for the greater good of society.

Texas’s Ideological Distribution

Texas is considered a “center-right” state.  Drawing from Elazar’s political cultures, individualistic and traditionalistic cultural elements have combined to produce conservativism in our government.  Random sample polls of registered voters have supported this statement by consistently showing that most Texans who are registered to vote currently identify themselves as moderates or conservatives.

This does not imply, however, that all Texans are conservative, nor does it imply that all conservative Texans share the same beliefs regarding government and politics.  The Threads of Texas project identified seven different segments of Texans that differ when it comes to “their orientation and emotion towards change and their understanding of what it means to be Texan” (Ramsey, 2021):

  • Lone Star Progressives: liberal, highly engaged, alienated, critical, and empathetic
  • Civic Pragmatists: engaged, civic-minded, pragmatic, rational, and measured
  • Rising Mavericks: younger, diverse, proud, critical, multifaceted, and politically informed
  • Apolitical Providers: lower income, equality-focused, detached, apprehensive, and apolitical
  • Die-hard Texans: proud, Texan-centered, optimistic, traditional, culturally connected, and politically disengaged
  • Texas Faithful: patriotic, traditional, faith-oriented, skeptical, and conspiratorial
  • Heritage Defenders: white, conservative, partisan, libertarian, and embattled

Our Differences: Less Significant than Our Similarities

If you watch the news or pay attention to what is going on in Washington, D.C., it may seem as though our country is more divided than ever (hence PBS Frontline created a two-episode special entitled “America’s Great Divide.”)  This division at the national level results in large part from the fact that the Democratic Party, which is ideologically liberal, is becoming more liberal as a whole, while the Republican Party, which is ideologically conservative, is becoming more conservative as a whole, causing the two parties to move further apart on the ideological spectrum (a phenomenon called polarization).

When it comes to Texas, however, this phenomenon is not as pervasive.  The Democratic Party of Texas is not the same thing as the Democratic Party in national government, nor is the Republican Party of Texas identical to the Republican Party in national government.  In Texas, the political differences between Democrats and Republicans, between immigrants or naturalized citizens and native-born citizens, and between rural and urban residents exist, “but they’re not as galvanizing in Texas as they are across the national level . . . Texas is unique, and Texans share really strong identities, even across those demographics” (Christiana Lang, as quoted by Ramsey, 2021).