Voter Apathy?

Voter participation rates vary widely. Among developed countries, they range from under 40% (Switzerland) to a level of nearly 90% (Belgium). We wonder: Which of the following countries had the highest voter turnout in its most recent national election?

A. United States
B. France
C. Mexico
D. South Korea

A. United States … is not correct.

In the 2016 U.S. federal election for president and Congress, just 55.7% of all voting-age Americans turned out to vote, according to the Pew Research Center.

This makes the United States one of the lowest-scoring countries in the OECD for electoral participation among all voting-age people.

A key obstacle to voting is the unnecessary complexity of the U.S. voting process. Eligible citizens are not automatically (or at least uniformly) enrolled for voting at the local or national level, as is the case in many other developed countries.

The process to register to vote varies dramatically by U.S. state (or even by county in some cases). It often involves different forms of identification, few registration locations and personnel or limited time windows to register.

Come election time, the actual voting locations also change frequently. That makes it hard for citizens to know where to cast their vote. Early voting, absentee voting, and mail-in voting opportunities are also not consistent by state.

In the United States, only the small state of North Dakota allows any resident to vote without any kind of registration. Several U.S. states allow registration on the day of the election, but still require a cumbersome sign-up process. Oregon is the first state to use automatic enrollment (tied to the driver’s license database) with a provision to opt out from registering.

B. France … is not correct.

In the second round of France’s recent 2017 presidential election, which saw centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron elected as France’s new president, 67.9% of all voting-age people participated. Of those, 34% of those who voted decided to cast blank ballots or voted to abstain. (The first round of the presidential election, with four major candidates, had a higher level of turnout as well as a lower abstention/blank rate.)

Germany will hold national elections in September 2017. In the previous federal elections, in 2013, 66% of all voting-age people turned out – basically identical to France’s level this year.

Italy’s last parliamentary election, in 2013, saw turnout of 70.6% among all voting-age people. The country’s next national elections will be some time before May 2018.

Switzerland prides itself on its “direct democracy,” putting many key issues for its population of more than 8 million directly on the ballot. However, Switzerland — in its 2015 federal election — had the lowest turnout in the entire OECD among voting-age people (38.6%).

C. Mexico … is not correct.

Like most countries in Latin America, Mexico has compulsory voting. However, this law is essentially not enforced there.

In the 2012 Mexican presidential election, a close-fought race between three major-party candidates, 66% of the voting-age population turned out to vote. This means that turnout among the population of Mexico was actually higher than turnout in the United States, a higher-income and more secure democracy, and about the same as in Germany.

Enrique Peña Nieto was elected president of Mexico that year without a runoff and just 38.21% of the vote. The results were marred by allegations of widespread election fraud, but a large recount supported by a range of countries confirmed the results.

Australia and Belgium also have compulsory voting, but the law is actually enforced there, at least with nominal penalties, unlike in Mexico.

Although Australia prides itself on turning out at least 90% of registered voters in every Australian federal election since the first compulsory-voting election in 1925, the actual voting-age turnout was only 79% in 2016. (Registration is also compulsory, but a significant share of eligible Australians fails to register anyway.)

Belgium’s turnout in the 2014 elections was 87.2% among all voting-age people – the highest level in the OECD. Voting has been mandatory in Belgium since 1894.

D. South Korea … is correct.

South Korea’s 2017 presidential election was an early election held to replace Park Geun-hye who was removed by the National Assembly and Constitutional Court for massive corruption and other scandals.

77.9% of all South Koreans of voting age turned out to vote in the special election. South Korea automatically lists all citizens (including those overseas) as eligible to vote. The turnout was slightly up from the prior presidential election, but was the highest in two decades, according to Pew.

South Korea’s nearby neighbor, Japan, which uses a similar automatic system for voter lists, had vastly lower turnout in its last national election, in 2014. Only 52% of all voting-age Japanese turned out. This was down sharply from the landslide 2009 elections (two elections prior), when 69% turnout saw the first victory by an opposition party in Japan since World War II.

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