The United States is notorious for having one of the lowest voter participation rates in the industrialized democratic world, and there is no shortage of proposals for increasing it. President Barack Obama recently floated the idea of compulsory voting. Hillary Clinton, running to succeed him, has a plan for national automatic voter registration and expanded early voting.
To the extent that Democrats are targeting actual discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities, more power to them, and shame on those Republicans who would raise obstacles to turnout in a purported fight against phantom fraud.
As for substantially increasing overall participation rates, however, there’s only so much that can be achieved through measures like those Obama and Clinton recommend. If we really wanted people to vote more, we would have to ask them to vote less.
One of political science’s better-established findings is that “the frequency of elections has a strongly negative influence on turnout,” as Arend Lijphart of the University of California at San Diego put it in a 1997 article.
Yet in the United States, we constantly hold elections: Every two years, we elect a new Congress and, in many states, a new legislature. Every four years, that’s combined with a presidential election. Some jurisdictions squeeze local balloting — for sheriff, school board, judge, coroner, you name it — into the years between midterm congressional and presidential elections. Of course, these are often twice-a-year exercises, since a primary precedes the general election. Sometimes primaries have runoffs!
The United States and Switzerland don’t have much in common, but they both have (a) frequent elections, with Switzerland holding at least three or four national votes per year, in addition to cantonal elections, and (b) relatively low voter turnout. A mere 49.1 percent of registered Swiss voters cast ballots in the 2011 national parliamentary elections.
That was admittedly higher than the 41.6 percent rate in the 2010 U.S. midterm election, but both figures were below the rates recorded in other Western European countries, which typically exceed 75 percent for their less-frequent elections.
In theory, frequent elections enhance the ordinary person’s influence over government and give him or her a strong incentive to stay abreast of the issues. No less a political genius than James Madison thought biennial elections for the House of Representatives would ensure that body’s “immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”
Similar notions lay behind various electoral reforms in our history, from direct election of U.S. senators to widespread use of referendums to the substitution of primaries for state party nominating conventions.
In practice, it’s costly — in time, effort and, indeed, money — to stay politically informed and active.
Those costs must be weighed against the potential benefits of participating in an election whose results might last no more than a couple of years, to the extent they affect you personally at all. Frequent elections therefore bring on what Lijphart calls “voter fatigue.”
In a famous papernearly 30 years ago, Richard Boyd of Wesleyan University found that the introduction of presidential primaries in northern states after 1968 accounted for a 10 percentage-point drop in those states’ general-election voter turnout by 1980.
In a country with frequent elections, voter fatigue might even outweigh a law requiring you to vote. Switzerland had compulsory voting prior to 1975, but turnout for national parliamentary elections declined from 71.7 percent of registered voters in 1947 to 56.4 percent in 1971. In one Swiss canton, non-voters still face a $6.60 fine today but turnout rates remain lower there than in the rest of Western Europe.
To be sure, none of this matters to those who think relatively low turnout is not a problem or, possibly, beneficial. As conservative commentator Tucker Carlson put it recently: “You wouldn’t want to be governed by people who are too uninformed or lazy to make it to the polls on Tuesday.”
As it happens, though, decreasing the frequency of elections is one of the few reforms that would increase not only the quantity of political participation but also its quality.
Suppose we convened the electorate only once every four years and dramatically raised the stakes — asking voters to pick a president, Congress and state governments all at once. People would have a much stronger incentive to vote, and to do so after a careful study of the candidates and the issues.
Obviously, that would entail a sweeping transformation of the U.S. political system — with equally sweeping, but totally unpredictable, consequences.
Or to put it another way: Current voter turnout patterns may be woven much more tightly into the fabric of American society than we generally admit, or even comprehend.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.