Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates from year to year and has never been higher than 65 percent of the over-18 population for presidential elections and 50 percent of the over-18 population in midterm elections. According to the 2014 Census Bureau Current Population Survey, there were nearly 220 million U.S. citizens over the age of 18 in 2014, and just over 64 percent reported being registered to vote. Of those 142 million people registered to vote, nearly 65 percent (or 92 million) reported casting ballots in 2014 for midterm elections. Still, those that voted only represented about 42 percent of the total population eligible.
So why don't people vote? The Census Bureau surveys conducted over the past several years point to a variety of reasons. Being "too busy" has consistently been the top reason for why people don't vote. In 2014 that reason was followed by not being interested and being out of town, which also tend to be top reasons for not voting. Other reasons for not voting include forgetting or not liking the candidates.
Other research suggests that people who do vote do it because of factors such as habit and social norms. A study published in Political Behavior in 2011 by researchers at Duke University and the University of Southern California found that voters typically fall in one of two categories: those who are motivated to vote for a particular candidate or issue and those who vote out of habit. "Once habit associations form, the response can be cued even in the absence of supporting beliefs and motivations," the authors wrote, explaining that even people who do not value voting may still be influenced to do it when seeing stimuli such as signs supporting candidates and people wearing "I voted" stickers.
In interviews for this project, several Kentucky residents said they don't vote because they don't believe their votes count. Those that do vote, however, said they believed their vote and voice could make a difference or said they believed voting was an important right or privilege for Americans.
"I vote for a variety of reasons," says Dr. Daniel Boden, a WKU political science professor. "Perhaps the most important reasons that I vote are because I believe voting is both a civic obligation and a civic responsibility."
Another WKU political science professor, Dr. Jeffrey Budziak, says he votes because "voting creates a unique opportunity for us to express our preferences about what our government does."
In addition to personal attitudes and reasons, demographic factors are also known to influence who votes. For this project, we looked at how race, gender, age and income play a role in voting behavior and party affiliation.
Marcus Stubbs contributed to this report.
Story by Hope Bradford
Women outnumber men when it comes to population as well as voter turnout and registering to vote, according to the 2015 Census Bureau Current Population Survey. Women had to fight for their right to vote. The first women’s rights convention took place at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. It wasn’t until 1920 -- nearly 70 years later -- that the 19th Amendment was ratified giving all women the right to vote.
There are some evident gender differences when it comes to voting behavior and party affiliation. According to Dr. Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center at Iowa State University, women are more likely than men to identify as Democrats while men are more likely to identify as Republicans. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, 52 percent of women identified with the Democratic Party or leaned Democratic, compared with 43 percent of men. This gap may be explained by varying attitudes over certain issues and policies. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in October 2011 revealed that women are more likely than men to believe the government should play an active role and do more to help the poor, children and elderly. The survey also revealed that men are less likely than women to favor gay marriage and more likely to support military spending and intervention.
Other demographic factors such as race, age, and marital status combine with gender to have their own influences. Single men and women are more likely to identify as Democrats, while their married counterparts are more likely to identify as Republicans, according to the 2011 Pew survey. White men in all age groups were more likely to vote for Mitt Romney than Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential elections while white women over the age of 65 were more likely to vote for Romney than their younger counterparts, according to a 2012 Pew Survey. The 2012 survey also revealed that men and women in all income groups were more likely to vote for Obama, though men with a family income over $75,000 were more likely to vote for Romney.
“It’s difficult to group people as a class based solely on their gender identity because women and men are in race groups, they’re in all socioeconomic class groups and we tend to identify more with those groups,” said Dr. Kristi Branham, director of the Western Kentucky University’s Gender and Women Studies Program.
By Indygo Ray
According to the Census Bureau's current population survey, the white population overall had high voter turnout in the United States from 2006 to 2014. In 2006 they turned out to vote at a 49.7 percent rate compared to Hispanics, who voted at a 32.3 percent rate. There are many reasons that account for why white people tend to have high voter turnout.
"White Americans tend to have more of the characteristics of those who vote than do members of a minority group," said Dr. Saundra Curry Ardrey, an associate professor of political behavior and the head of the political science department at Western Kentucky University. "These traits include higher education and higher socioeconomic status."
A study done by Thom File, who has authored reports on voting and registration at the Census Bureau, looks at the number of eligible voters by race in elections 2006 through 2014. He argues that the reason voter turnout is high within the white population is because of their increased eligibility to vote.
However, there was a shift in voter turnout in the presidential election years of 2008 and 2012. The black population turned out to vote in those elections at a higher rate than any other race. They took the lead in voter turnout above Caucasians, Hispanics and Asians, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. Black people turned out to vote at 64.7 percent rate while white people turned out to vote at a 64.4 percent rate in 2008. The same trend played out in 2012. White people turned out to vote at a 62.2 percent rate while black people turned out to vote at a 66.2 percent rate, the Census Bureau reported.
What was the reason for this sudden change in voter turnout by black people? William H. Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, claims that minority turnout was high because Barack Obama was running for president. According to his research, "increased minority turnout was indeed responsible for Obama's win in the 2012 election." The turnout rate by blacks, as well as the turnout for many other minorities in 2008 and 2012, demonstrate that the disenfranchised will turn out if given a reason to vote. Barack Obama's message resonated with many minorities.
Hispanics turn out to vote at a lower level than black and white people. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, voter turnout for Latinos was below 50 percent -- but still higher than in previous years. Historically, Hispanic voter turnout rates are among the lowest of any race or ethnic group in midterm elections, according to the Pew Research Center.
In a 2014 New York Times article "Why Hispanics Don't Vote," writer Nate Cohn arguesthat no other demographic group is more marginalized in America than Hispanics. "Many are ineligible to vote, while those who can vote often do not or are concentrated in noncompetitive districts and states," he wrote.
The Asian population turns out to vote the least out of all the races recorded by the Census Bureau population survey reports, though they not too far behind Hispanics. In 2008 Asian voters turned out to vote at a rate of 47.6 percent compared to Hispanics, who had a 49.9 percent turnout rate. "Since 1998, about three in 10 Asian-American eligible voters have cast ballots in midterm elections, a rate that lags far behind that of whites and blacks," according to Asian Fortune News, citing The Pew Research Center. Even among Asian American voters who are college educated, the voting rate still does not match their white, black and Hispanic peers. This may partly be because some Asian Americans -- just like Hispanics -- face obstacles before they even cast their ballots, such as language barriers at polling stations.
Story by Indygo Ray
Why is income relevant to voter turnout? It seems as though the wealthy people in the United States are able to make it to the polls, while the poor face different challenges that keep them from voting. Income inequality has an effect on political engagement. Research shows that there is an extreme gap in voter turnout when looking at high family income compared to low family income.
In the 2008 presidential election, 61.8 percent of people with household family income of less than $10,000 were registered to vote compared to 86 percent of those in households with income of $150,000 and above, according to the Census Bureau. Voter turnout was also lower: 49 percent for those in the low-income households compared to 81.6 percent at the higher income level. “Affluent Americans have turned out to vote at significantly higher rates than lower-income Americans,” explains Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at DEMOS.
In a survey on the politics of financial insecurity, The Pew Research Center found that almost all of the most financially secure Americans (94 percent) were registered to vote, while more than half of financially unstable Americans (54 percent) recorded that they were not registered to vote. People with high incomes are more likely to be civically engaged and believe their vote can make a difference within the government.
When it comes to age and voting, older Americans are clearly more likely to show up to the polls than younger people. In elections since 2006 there has been a consistent 20-point difference between the percentages of 18-29 year old voters to 70+ age voters, according to a Census Bureau survey.
Age acts as a sort of sliding scale for participation. In the survey, the older each age category was, the higher their turnout and registration. This seems to add to the evidence that young people do not care to keep up with politics. When they do however, they often prefer more progressive candidates or grass roots campaign. This election cycle, Democratic primary contender Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been deemed the youth candidate. Sanders has received almost 2 million votes from Americans of the ages of 17-29, which puts him well ahead of the next candidate Donald Trump’s tally of 746,518 youth voters, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. In 2008, 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 lent their support to now President Barack Obama, according to Pew Research Center.
Young people, although less likely to vote, are also more likely to enjoy presidential debates, according to Pew Research Center. Fifty-nine percent of 18-29 year olds said they found the debates fun to watch, compared to only 47 percent of those 69 years and older. However, Pew Research also found that only 58 percent of 18-29 year olds have watched a debate while 72 percent of those 65 years and older have watched a debate. Although compared to 2008, 25 percent more of 18-29 year olds are watching the debates.
Dr. Jeffrey Budziak, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, said there are many reasons turnout is low amongst young voters.
“I think that part of that is they do not have the background/history that older people do, or they do not have much experience in the political process by definition,” Budziak said. “On top of it of course, I think lots of young people feel like they do not understand the impact of voting has on the government and the fact that the government policies has an impact on them.”