Voter Turnout Across the World

O’Neil (in Chapter 6) argues that democracies are institutionalized through the institutions of participation, competition, and liberty.  The most common form of participation in democracies is voting in elections.  Yet, the general sense seems to be that voters are turning out to vote in ever smaller numbers over the years.  Do the data bear that out?

The IGO IDEA–The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance–has a fantastic website dedicated to, amongst other things, tracking voter turnout levels in elections around the world. Referring to the map below, we see that voter turnout levels differ from country to country. Why might this be the case? This observation could be used as the first step in demonstrating Lave and March’s four-step process of modeling social and political phenomena. Thus, step one (“observe a social fact”) is voter turnout levels are higher in some countries and lower in others. Step two, then, requires us to consider a social process that could have accounted for this variation in outcomes. Can you think of a social process that can account for the findings on the map below?


Here are some important findings from IDEA’s report on world voter turnout trends.  For a complete list of data for each respective country, go here.

  • High turnout is not solely the property of established democracies in the West. Of the top 10 countries in the 1990s only three were Western European democracies.
  • Turnout across the globe rose steadily between 1945 and 1990 – increasing from 61% in the 1940s to 68% in the 1980s. But post-1990 the average has dipped back to 64%.
  • Since 1945 Western Europe has maintained the highest average turnout (77%), and Latin America the lowest (53%), but turnout need not necessarily reflect regional wealth. North America and the Caribbean have the third lowest turnout rate, while Oceania and the former Soviet states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Central Eastern Europe are respectively second and third highest in the regional league table over this period.
  • The overall average turnout in the post-war period for established democracies is 73%, which contrasts with an average of 58% for all other countries. However, turnout rates in both established and non-established democracies have been converging over time.
  • Out of the 81 countries which had first and subsequent elections between 1945 and 1997, the average turnout in first elections (61%) is actually lower than the average for subsequent elections (62%). This represents a mixed pattern backed up by the fact that turnout in 41 countries dropped between the first and second elections but turnout actually rose in another 40 countries.