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Causes of the Decline in Voter Turnout

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2902 words Published: 20th Feb 2019

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“What explains the decline in voter turnout in most democracies in the last few decades? In your answer, consider one or two explanations that you consider most important and empirical evidence supporting or rejecting them”.

According to Dalton (1988) “citizen involvement in the political process is essential for democracy to be viable and meaningful”. They suggest that “limited political involvement is a sign of weakness because it is only through dialogue and participation that societal goals are defined and achieved in a democracy. Voting, though it requires little initiative and cooperation with others, is the most visible and widespread form of citizen involvement”[1]. Over the past three decades, voter turnout in the UK and other democratic countries has decreased significantly, I will discuss what I consider to be two of the most important explanations for the decline in voter turnout across various democratic countries. These being political disengagement and dissatisfaction and the reduction in the value of voting. I have chosen these due to the fact there is significant empirical evidence supporting both explanations, as will be explored below. The first part of this essay will explain some statistics regarding the levels of voter turnout, following this, I will discuss the idea that political disengagement and dissatisfaction could be considered one of the most significant contributors to the decline in voter turnout and how the depleting value of the vote can cause people to refrain from voting altogether.

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A democratic country is defined as being a country in which “all eligible citizens have the right to participate in the political system, either directly or indirectly when it comes to making the decisions that will affect them”[2]. The decline in voter turnout throughout democratic countries in the last few decades is fast becoming a problem due to the fact democracy depends on voter participation. The decline in voter turnout can be noted in the UK where voter turnout reduced from 75.3% in 1987 to 68.7% in 2017, suffering substantial dips throughout this period, as was found in 2001 in which voter turnout dropped to 59.4%.

Figure 1. A line graph showing the decline in general election turnout since 1945. Taken from: Ukpolitical.info. Voter turnout at UK general elections 1945 – 2017 | UK Political Info. [online] Available at: http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm.

The same thing can be seen in other democratic countries. For example, voter turnout in the US during Mid-Term Elections has decreased from 60.89% of registered voters voting and 41.07% of voting age voters voting in 1986 to 54.16% of registered voters voting and 39.51% of voting age voters voting in 2014. The same cannot be said for Presidential elections, where we see an increase from 76.98%/56.28% voting in 1988 and 78.76%/60.52% voting in 2016. However, the most recent statistics do show a decline from 2004 onwards. One possible explanation for this could be the voters feel as though a Presidential election is more important, it gains more media coverage and affects the whole country. Therefore, it would be useful to consider some of the reasons for this selective decline in voter turnout.

Figure 2: Levels of voter turnout in US midterm elections from 1982 to 2014. Taken from: Sos.wa.gov. [online] Available at: https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/voter-participation.aspx
Figure 3: Levels of voter turnout in US presidential elections from 1980 to 2016. Taken from: Sos.wa.gov. [online] Available at: https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/voter-participation.aspx.

The first of my proposed explanations for the decline in voter turnout is the public’s political disengagement and dissatisfaction. Before I continue, it is important to distinguish between voter apathy and voter alienation in order to determine whether there is a decline in voter turnout due to an increased laziness throughout the public or due to the public feeling as though they can no longer relate to their politicians, my first point of discussion focusses on the latter. Crewe et al (1992) suggested that apathy indicates a lack personal responsibility, a “passivity, and indifference for political affairs. It denotes the absence of a feeling of personal obligation to participate. However, voter alienation implies an active rejection of the political system”. The alienation the public are feeling when it comes to politics was found by Dr. Ruth Fox to stem from the fact that the parties we have to choose from are “all the same, the politicians are all the same, they are not like us”[3]. This could mean that the public can no longer identify with the candidates they are voting for.

Politicians have become so detached from the average person, that the public cannot find any logical reason to want to vote them into power and consequently, do not vote at all. This could be considered one of the most crucial factors to contribute to a declining voter turnout because the aim of an elected Government is to represent the public’s views in Parliament to ensure that the decisions made, and laws created, benefit the country in the most inclusive way possible. Therefore, when the public feel as though they are not being accurately represented in Parliament they can feel alienated which in turn, promotes disinterest and a feeling of disengagement among the public with regard to politics. The British Academy stated that “British society has become, for the most part, disengaged with politics…In the case of British voters, it is important to understand the scale and depth of their disenchantment”. This can be considered important because if we can engage the public in politics through their MPs and other representatives, this would subsequently improve voter turnout.

The second of my proposed explanations for declining levels of voter turnout is the idea that the public no longer places any value in voting, believing that their votes will not make a difference. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Committee found this especially “when the member of the public lived in an area in which there was a safe seat, that is, where the party of the elected representative was unlikely to change[4]”. The value of voting can be considered an important explanation for the decline in voter turnout because if the public does not feel as if their vote will make a difference, or produce the outcome they prefer, they will be less inclined to even try. It was suggested by Ioannis Kolovos and Phil Harris that voters “weigh up the costs and benefits of their actions, meaning that the public will turn up to vote when they consider that the benefits of such an action outweigh the costs[5]”. An example of how the public have been made to feel disengaged with politics can be seen in the last election in which the Green Party and UKIP had significant support, resulting in a considerable number of votes. Under a different political system, these parties would have won 85 seats. Unfortunately, for the people that voted for them, the Green Party and UKIP only gained 1 seat each. Therefore, it appears that when people see that a significant percentage of the electorate are completely ignored due to the current political system, they give up on voting entirely due to the fact they think that their votes will not make a difference leading them to believe that the act of voting had little benefits. This could explain the decline in voter turnout in most democracies in the last few decades.

There are many factors that can explain the decline in voter turnout in most democracies over the last few decades. In this essay, I have focused on and provided empirical evidence for what I believe to be two of the most important; political disengagement and dissatisfaction and the reduction in the value of voting. The need for politics to be more inclusive and for the public to feel as though they can relate to their representatives would considerably help the rates of voter turnout as they would feel as though their vote means something and would contribute to an outcome that would benefit themselves as well as others. They would also feel more involved in the political process which, in turn would allow them to restore the value of their vote because as the public begins to feel more engaged and satisfied with their representative in Parliament, they would place a value on their vote as they would know that it could potentially make a difference.


1) Anon, (2018). [online] Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228215776_What_Affects_Voter_Turnout [Accessed 9 Jan. 2018].

2) Crewe, I 1992, ‘Changing votes and unchanging voters’, Electoral Studies, 11, 4, p. 335-345, Scopus®, EBSCOhost, viewed 12 January 2018

3) Dalton, Russell J., Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 5th edition (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2008), p. 37. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “Voter Turnout Database”, International IDEA website.

4) E-International Relations. (2018). Why is Turnout at Elections Declining Across the Democratic World? [online] Available at http://www.e-ir.info/2012/09/27/why-is-turnout-at-elections-declining-across-the-democratic-world/ [Accessed 9 Jan. 2018].

5) Hooghe, M, & Kern, A. 2017, ‘The tipping point between stability and decline: Trends in voter turnout, 1950-1980-2012’, European Political Science, 16, 4, p. 535-552, Scopus®, EBSCOhost, viewed 14 December 2017.

6) Kolovos, I. and Harris, P. (n.d.). Voter Apathy in British Elections: Causes and Remedies. pp.2-3.

7) Kolovos, I. and Harris, P. (n.d.). Voter Apathy in British Elections: Causes and Remedies. Pp.3.

8) Lop.parl.ca. (2018). Democracy Defined | Our Country, Our Parliament. [online] Available at: https://lop.parl.ca/About/Parliament/Education/ourcountryourparliament/html_booklet/democracy-defined-e.html [Accessed 12 Jan. 2018].

9) Publications.parliament.uk. (2014). [online] Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmpolcon/232/232.pdf [Accessed 11 Jan. 2018].

10) Sos.wa.gov. (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/voter-participation.aspx [Accessed 11 Jan. 2018].

11) Southwell, PL 2008, ‘THE EFFECT OF POLITICAL ALIENATION ON VOTER TURNOUT, 1964-2000’, Journal Of Political & Military Sociology, 36, 1, pp. 131-145, SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost, viewed 11 January 2018. (http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=13872f22-38b9-460a-bd0c-4953cc4c2455%40pdc-v-sessmgr01)

12) Stuart, C. (2016). Why is the turnout for UK elections so low?. [online] Quora. Available at: https://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-turnout-for-UK-elections-so-low [Accessed 10 Jan. 2018].

13) Ukpolitical.info. (2018). Voter turnout at UK general elections 1945 – 2017 | UK Political Info. [online] Available at: http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm [Accessed 11 Jan. 2018].


Reasons for low voter engagement: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmpolcon/232/23205.htm

Written evidence submitted by Tim Knight (VUK 69) http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/voter-engagement-in-the-uk/written/8287.html

Written evidence submitted by 38 Degrees (VUK 50) http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/voter-engagement-in-the-uk/written/7510.html

Written evidence submitted by Ian Sheppard (VUK 51) http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/voter-engagement-in-the-uk/written/7575.html

Written evidence submitted by Michael Yates (VUK 53): “Why does the UK experience low voter engagement” http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/voter-engagement-in-the-uk/written/7880.html

Written evidence submitted by David H Smith (VUK 59): Reasons for and impact of low voter engagement. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/voter-engagement-in-the-uk/written/7970.html

[1] Voter Apathy in British elections: Causes and Remedies, pg2-3

[2] Democracy Defined | Our Country, Our Parliament.

[3] House of Commons Political and Constitutional Committee: Voter engagement in the UK (2014-15) S3, Pg. 7

[4] Written evidence from 38 Degrees [VUK 50], Ian Sheppard [VUK 51], Michael Yates [VUK 53], David H Smith [VUK 59], Tim Knight [VUK 69],

[5] Voter apathy in British elections: Causes and Remedies


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