Why don't most Americans vote? Maybe they don't trust U.S. elections

Pippa Norris, Holly Ann Garnett, and Max Grömping

This report was published in the Monkey Cage/ Washington Post on Monday 26th December 2016.

The U.S. election has reinforced concern by all sides about problems of electoral integrity. During the campaign, and even after his victory, Trump has claimed widespread voter fraud. Democrats and civil rights organizations accused GOP state houses of suppressing voters’ rights. Journalists criticized fake online stories. Polling day brought local complaints about long wait lines and broken voting machines. Perhaps most seriously, the CIA and FBI reported that Russia attempted to influence the U.S. election through cyber-attacks.

Even before the Putin surprise, however, few Americans trusted the honesty of their elections. A Gallup poll two weeks before election day found that only one-third of Americans (35%) were ‘very confident’ that their vote would be counted accurately. Even worse, when people around the world were asked how confident they were  in the honesty of their elections, Gallup found that this year the U.S. ranked 90th out of 112 countries.

Widespread belief that elections are rigged or stolen may seriously damage democracy. My research for Why Electoral Integrity Matters  using the World Values Survey showed that when people believe that electoral malpractice is common, they are significantly less likely to vote.

The United States has long had one of the lowest levels of voter turnout among all equivalent democratic states and developed economies. In 2016, turnout among the voting age population was 54.4 percent nationwide - but this varied by states from lows of 37.8 percent in Hawaii and 43.1 percent in Texas to 69.5 percent in Maine and 69.4 percent in Minnesota, as you can see in the figure below.

US Voting turnout, 2016

 Note: Voter turnout (Ballots cast as a proportion of the Voting Age Population) in the US 2016 Presidential election. Source: The US Elections Project http://www.electproject.org/

Note: Voter turnout (Ballots cast as a proportion of the Voting Age Population) in the US 2016 Presidential election. Source: The US Elections Project http://www.electproject.org/

Comparing the performance of U.S. states

So did lack of electoral integrity keep Americans from voting this year? To find out, the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), an independent academic project based at Harvard and Sydney Universities, conducted an expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity. ‘Electoral integrity’ refers to international standards and global norms governing the appropriate conduct of elections,  during the pre-election stage, the campaign, polling day and the election aftermath. For the last five years, EIP has used expert surveys to evaluate the quality of parliamentary and presidential elections around the world, including after the 2012 and 2014 U.S. elections. Our technique is similar to that employed by Transparency International’s widely-used Corruption Perceptions Index. The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index has been rigorously validated.

To examine the 2016 U.S. election, last month we surveyed 726 political scientists, who evaluated electoral integrity in their own states using 49 core indicators, such as whether elections were well managed, the electoral register was accurate, votes were counted fairly, and newspapers provided balanced election news, without any reference to political parties or to levels of voter participation. The indicators were then summed into an overall 100-point PEI index.

The performance of US states in the 100-point PEI Electoral Integrity Index

  Note:  The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index,  Source : PEI-US 2016, www.electoralintegrityindex.com

Note: The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index, Source: PEI-US 2016, www.electoralintegrityindex.com

Figure 2 illustrates how experts evaluated the 2016 elections across all 50 U.S. states and D.C. The patterns show that experts assess the South as the region with the worst PEI Index. The Supreme Court may have ruled that  the days when Southern states tried to restrict voting votes are over , but these expert evaluations suggest otherwise. Some of the rust belt states [EG1] were also assessed as poor. By contrast, experts assessed the quality of elections more positively in the Pacific West and New England.

But state performances varied even within major regions. Overall, states scoring worst in electoral integrity were Arizona (ranked last), followed by Wisconsin, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. Several of these states had also been poorly rated previously in the 2014 Pew Election Performance Index. By contrast, the U.S. states rated most highly in the PEI Index were Vermont, Idaho, New Hampshire, and Iowa.

Did electoral integrity matter for voter turnout?

For many decades, political science has understood that policies and practices about registation and balloting can either boost or reduce turnout. When it’s easy to register and convenient to vote, more people are likely to cast a ballot. But many other factors matter as well in each state, including its socioeconomic characteristics, patterns of party competition, and the intensity of the campaign ground game.

 Note: Voter turnout (Ballots cast as a proportion of the Voting Age Population) by levels of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index. Source: PEI-US 2016 www.electoralintegrityproject.com

Note: Voter turnout (Ballots cast as a proportion of the Voting Age Population) by levels of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index. Source: PEI-US 2016 www.electoralintegrityproject.com

We found that electoral integrity has an effect as well. As you can see in the figure above, in states with a high PEI Index – like New Hampshire, Iowa and Minnesota -- more citizens showed up to vote. Where the PEI Index was low -- as in Arizona, Texas and Nevada -- fewer citizens showed up at the polls.   

Improving integrity and participation

The U.S. ranks 52nd out of 153 countries worldwide in the 2016 Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index, and at the bottom of equivalent Western democracies. This poor performance is an important part of the reason why America also has exceptionally low turnout. 


Bio note: Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Laureate Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Director of the EIP Project. Holly Ann Garnett is a PhD candidate at McGill University. Max Grömping is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. More details and data are available at www.electoralintegrityproject.com .