As is too often the case, Election Day last week was marred by stories of voter suppression and difficulties, from voter roll purges, to long lines and machine malfunctions at polling stations. Despite these disturbing situations, many of which were either avoidable or deliberate, around 100 million Americans turned out to vote for the first time in a midterm election.
This is heartening to be sure, but even with this landmark, only about half of eligible voters showed up to the polls. In a very real sense, everyone who turned out voted for two people. And this was not a random sample. Voters tend to be disproportionately white, older, better-educated, and higher income than their eligible, non-voting counterparts. The story of any U.S. election, particularly a midterm election, is as much about who didn’t vote as who did, although the question of how outcomes would change if non-voters showed up is not as clear-cut as is sometimes assumed (e.g., Leighley and Nagler 2014).
In any democratic election, there will always be people who do not exercise their franchise, for a wide variety of individual and institutional reasons. Voting behavior is complicated. There is, however, something not quite consistent about having a (possibly) record turnout midterm election in which half of eligible voters stay home. Those of us with a comparative research inclination might wonder if this is the case in other developed democracies.