Three Myths about Voter Turnout in the United States

September 14, 2004 • Policy Analysis No. 524

Critics of American politics and elections often focus on low voter turnout in the United States. They argue that voter turnout is steadily declining largely because of voter cynicism caused by big money campaigns and negative political advertising. Voter turnout is lower than it was in the 1960s, but almost the entire decline happened between 1968 and 1974. Sophisticated and detailed studies of both public trust in government and the consequences of political advertising show that neither factor has a negative effect on voter turnout.

Turnout is lower than in other developed nations, but the United States has a different culture and history than European nations that see large majorities of their citizens go to the polls. European standards are not appropriate for judging American turnout.

Critics of American politics have misunderstood voter turnout in the United States. The proposed remedies–limiting political liberty through restrictions on campaign finance and on political advertising–are neither analytically sound nor necessary for a healthy body politic.

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