The U.S. Still Can’t Take a Hint About Voter Turnout

Ava Kelley, Editor

This year’s U.S. voter turnout is nothing worth bragging about. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still worth celebrating. The 2020 election was heralded as a breakout year for American voters. Though counts are ongoing, the election is projected to have record-breaking turnout numbers. According to the University of Florida’s United States Election Project, the turnout rate among the voting-age population was 61.8%. [1] A note to clarify what exactly they mean: the voting-age population (VAP) is defined as those eligible to vote “regardless of voter registration status” in an election. 

To be sure, higher turnout is a reason for optimism. But 2020 is the exception, not the rule: low turnout is a perennial problem that plagues the U.S. electorate.

Existing research has revealed that country characteristics like economic development, country size, and density, and geographical regions all influence voter turnout. [2] Though it is difficult to control for all these factors, it is helpful to distinguish a group of developed, high-income countries from others. The OECD is a good starting point to understand cross-country variation in voter turnout compared to the United States.

Here’s the truth. Compared to the United States’ OECD counterparts, U.S. voter turnout, even in presidential election years, is terrible. In a Pew Research Center study that ranked turnout in most OECD nations’ most recent national election (and which notably used data from the 2016 U.S. national election), the United States ranked 30th out of 35 countries surveyed. [3] Using the United States’ 2020 turnout rate, the picture improves significantly to 22nd out of 35 countries. That ranking isn’t abysmal. But compared to the United States’ developed counterparts, it’s pretty mediocre. What lessons can OECD countries with high voter turnout teach the U.S.?

This year, voting methods were vastly expanded in the majority of U.S. states. More specifically, this year, the United States witnessed the largest expansion of mail-in voting in memory. Academic studies like this one suggest the importance of an accessible voting process, which is defined as the ability to “vote by mail, in advance, or by proxy.” [4] The study concludes that turnout in countries that make voting “easy to do” is 10% higher than countries that offer none of these methods of voting. That’s important. Though conclusions about U.S. voter turnout in 2020 specifically remain up for debate, Stanford political scientists and others have found that the expansion of vote by mail boosts turnout. [5]

Making voting mandatory is another option. According to the CIA World Factbook, 21 countries are home to some form of compulsory voting. Four are in the OECD: Australia, Belgium, Greece, and Luxembourg. Australia and Belgium are OECD countries with very high turnout according to the Pew study, with rates of 80.8% and 77.9% in most recent elections, respectively. Though Greece and Luxembourg do not rank high in turnout, both rarely enforce compulsory voting. Fascinating academic studies like an Australian case study [6] and a Canadian cross-country analysis [7] find that compulsory voting can raise turnout substantially. Notably, the latter study states explicitly that compulsory voting must be more than just an empty threat to be successful in increasing turnout: unlike in the case of Luxembourg and Greece, there must be penalties for those who don’t vote.

 And what about the argument to make election day a federal holiday? In countries that have better voter turnout than the United States, election day is often a day off of work: 29 of 36 OECD countries hold elections on the weekend or have made election day a national holiday. [8] In the United States, this movement has gained traction in recent years, including in a 2018 bill proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. But academics are not convinced that making election day a federal holiday would do the trick. Papers such as one by economist Henry S. Farber in 2009 found that the introduction of a so-called “Democracy Day” alone is not an effective method of increasing voter turnout. [9] 

In a country where a third of its citizens say a federal mask mandate would violate their civil liberties, compulsory voting will likely not be on the table anytime soon. [10] Yet, if the United States’ 2020 experience has taught the country anything, it is that the U.S. can and should still look to the international community’s GOTV toolkit for ways to increase ease of voting for its citizens. There will be challenges, notably due to the widely varying patchwork of state- and county-level voting laws in the United States that 2020 has brought into focus. Yet these challenges are not insurmountable. The United States need not reinvent the wheel. It could learn a lot by looking to its neighbors and across the Atlantic for guidance. 

[1] “2020 November General Election Turnout Rates.” United States Election Project, US Election Project, 7 December 2020,

[2] Blais, Andre, et al. “Why is Turnout Higher in Some Countries than in Others?” Elections Canada, March 2003,

[3] Desilver, Drew. “In past elections, US trailed most developed countries in voter turnout.” FactTank, 3 November 2020,

[4] Blais, Andre, et al. “Why is Turnout Higher in Some Countries than in Others?” OP. CIT.

[5] De Witte, Melissa. “Stanford scholars find no partisan advantage of mail-in, absentee voting but other challenges lie ahead.” Stanford News, 3 Sept. 2020,

[6] Fowler, Anthony. “Electoral and Policy Consequences of Voter Turnout: Evidence from Compulsory Voting in Australia.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 159-182.

[7] Blais, Andre, et al. “Why is Turnout Higher in Some Countries than in Others?” OP. CIT.

[8] Borresen, Kelsey. “Why isn’t Election Day a National Holiday in the United States?” Huffington Post, 8 October 2020,

[9] Farber, Henry S. “Increasing Voter Turnout: Is Democracy Day the Answer?” Princeton University CEPS Working Paper No. 181, Feb. 2009, Bruce, Graeme. “Lockdowns and mask mandates: Are they civil rights violations?” YouGov, 21 Sept. 2020,