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 Campaigns: The Basics

A political campaign is an attempt to get information to voters that will persuade them to elect a candidate or not elect an opponent.  All political campaigns – regardless of the candidate or party they support – have two main goals: (1) to reach voters with information about their candidate; and (2) to get voters to show up and vote for their candidate at the polls by engaging in voter mobilization or GOTV (get out the vote) efforts.

Political campaigns vary greatly in size and intensity.  Campaigns in swing districts such as Texas Senate District 10 in Fort Worth usually have larger campaigns than campaigns in districts that heavily support one major party over the other, such as Texas House District 11, which includes Cherokee, Nacogdoches, and Rusk counties.

Successful political campaigns generally have a professional campaign organization, money to finance advertising, travel, and other campaign-related expenses, name recognition and a favorable impression for the candidate, unfavorable impressions of the opponents, and mechanisms that encourage supporters to go to the polls.

Campaign Strategies

Most political campaigns adopt one or more of the following campaign strategies when developing their campaign’s message:

  1. party-centered strategy, which focuses on the values of the candidate’s political party and why voters should support those values
  2. issue-oriented strategy, which focuses on a particular issue or set of issues
  3. image-oriented strategy, which focuses on the candidate’s image and portrays the candidate as able to rise above partisan considerations to tackle issues facing the citizens that the candidate would represent

Despite polls demonstrating that most voters do not respond well to negative advertisements and messages, modern campaigns – whether they are federal, state, or local – increasingly rely on mudslinging and negative messages about opponents as part of their campaign strategy, in large part because other polls demonstrate that using negative advertisements and messages influences undecided voters.

Campaign Phases

Political campaigns consist of two phases: primary campaigns, during which members of the party-in-the-electorate determine who the candidate for a particular political party will be among a list of potential nominees, and general election campaigns, during which members of the electorate vote on who they would like to represent them in an elected office.

These different phases require appealing to different voters, which in turn necessitates different sets of strategies (summarized below).

Primary Campaigns

  • Target Voters:  members of the party-in-the-electorate
  • Campaign Strategies:  
    1. Focus on issue positions
    2. Seek to increase visibility and name recognition

General Election Campaigns

  • Target voters:  Eligible voters
  • Campaign Strategies:
    1. Persuade independent and undecided voters to choose their candidate, often by focusing on policy issues of the major candidates
    2. Mobilize voter turnout within the party base and among independent and undecided voters who may vote for the candidate

Advertising spikes during the general elections, in part because of the general election campaign strategy of swaying voters with information about the candidates and trying to mobilize people to vote in the election, and in part because shadow campaigns, or campaigns run by PACs and other organizations without coordination with or guidance from candidates, air negative advertisements to reach voters during the general election phase.