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As US Prepares to Vote, Who Will Be Casting Ballots?

A Vote sign is placed outside of an early voting location, Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, in Miami. U.S. midterm elections are Nov. 8.
A Vote sign is placed outside of an early voting location, Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, in Miami. U.S. midterm elections are Nov. 8.

On Tuesday, November 8, Americans will go to the polls to vote in elections that will determine which party controls the House of Representatives and the Senate for the next two years, and will also fill many state-level legislative and executive positions.

If history is a guide, it is likely that a relatively small fraction of American adults eligible to cast ballots will actually do so, perhaps less than half. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in August found that only 36% of registered voters said that they had “given a lot of thought” to the coming election.

The share of Americans who will vote is likely to be older and whiter than the population at large. Pew’s data found that 50% of registered voters aged 65 or older have given a lot of thought to the election, compared to only 20% of those aged between 18 and 29.

The percentage of white registered voters who said they have given a lot of thought to the election was 40%, compared to 30% of Hispanic voters, 27% of Black voters, and 17% of Asian voters.

Income and education

Other major factors that correlate with engagement in the coming election include levels of education and income.

According to Pew’s data, engagement with the coming election was highest among individuals with advanced college degrees, at 40%.

Interestingly, while only 34% of college graduates with no advanced degree reported high engagement, those with some college but no degree reported the same level of engagement, 40%, as those with postgraduate degrees. Engagement was lowest among those who didn’t graduate high school or whose highest level of education was a high school diploma, at 32%.

Typically, wealthier Americans are, on average, more likely to vote than the non-wealthy. U.S. Census data indicates that while 85% of people in households with income over $150,000 voted in 2020, just 72% of people in households with between $50,000 and $74,999 did, and only 50% of people in households with income between $15,000 and $19,999 voted.

Economy a major issue

While there have been many headline grabbing issues in U.S. news reports in the previous year, the state of the economy is seen as the most important factor that most voters will be considering in November. Asked how important it was to them, 77% of people polled by Pew rated it as very important.

United States Heads Toward Pivotal Midterm Elections
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With inflation running high, at more than 8% year-over-year, and threats of a looming recession, it may not be surprising that voters are focused on the issue.

That news could bode ill for the Democratic Party, which currently holds the White House and both houses of Congress. In midterm elections, the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in Congress. This year, Republicans are hopeful that, with margins already slim, this dynamic will help them take control of one or both chambers.

Abortion effect

However, while typical election participation trends might hold true in 2022, there is the possibility of a change on the margins. While still likely to vote in lower numbers than their older counterparts, participation among younger voters in November could be boosted by anger over the Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade, an earlier decision that created federal protection guaranteeing the right to an abortion.

“Anger is a good mobilizer,” Lisa Bryant, an associate professor of political science at California State University, Fresno, told VOA. “It sounds counterintuitive, but people turn out when they're angry.”

The abortion issue may also increase participation among women, she said.

“The Democratic Party, and particularly women, which make up a larger share of the Democratic Party, are angry about the Roe decision,” Bryant said. “I think that that will motivate a lot of people to turn out this year.”

She said that voters motivated by the abortion ruling could offset, somewhat, the difference in participation between the youngest and oldest American voters.

“Young women are registering in record numbers and saying that they intend to turn out in record numbers,” Bryant said. “So we might see that gap closed a little bit this year.”

Adjustment effect

Jan Leighley, a professor of political science at the American University School of Public Affairs, told VOA that there are other reasons to question whether the conventional wisdom about midterm turnout will necessarily hold in 2022.

Pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic disruptions and uncertainty, controversial Supreme Court decisions and the ongoing investigations into former President Donald Trump, Leighley said it might be unwise to assume that past patterns of behavior will necessarily hold in 2022.

“It's not that it's a new normal, but maybe the old processes have shifted,” she said. “Maybe we're still in an adjustment period.”
In particular, she said, it might affect peoples’ propensity to vote in ways that didn’t apply in previous elections.

“People have cross-pressures,” she said. “And how they put all of those pieces together, I think, changes the rational decision of whether you vote or not, especially for people who haven't voted before.”

Historical participation

Federal elections in the U.S. take place every two years, and in every one all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are on the ballot, as are roughly one-third of the 100 seats in the Senate. Because U.S. presidents serve four-year terms, every other election is considered a “presidential” election, while those that occur two years later, at the midpoint of the sitting president’s term, are called “midterms.”

Historically, presidential elections have attracted significantly higher voter participation than midterms. According to the United States Elections Project, maintained by Michael P. McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, turnout in U.S. presidential elections has hovered between 49% and 65% of the voting-eligible population for most of the past 100 years.

For midterms, turnout has been considerably lower, remaining between 33% and 49% for most of the past 100 years.

However, in the last two federal elections, turnout was markedly higher than in recent years. In the 2018 midterm election, participation hit 50%, the highest figure since 1914. In the 2020 presidential election, 66.7% of the voting eligible population cast a ballot, the highest percentage since 1900.

Political scientists say that recent turnout levels have been boosted by the fact that Trump, a polarizing political figure, drove engagement on both sides of the political aisle. In addition, measures taken in 2020 to make voting easier during the COVID-19 pandemic may also have increased turnout.

International comparison

It can be difficult to compare voter participation across countries because there are different ways of measuring it. Some consider the percentage of voting age people who cast a ballot. Others consider only the percentage of voting-eligible individuals who vote (excluding resident aliens, for example). Still others measure the percentage of people who have registered to vote who actually show up to cast a ballot.

By most measures, though, participation in the U.S. lags behind many of its peer countries, particularly those, like Belgium and Australia, where laws that make voting compulsory drive participation rates to around 80%.

Data collected by Pew Research, for example, showed that among all the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only Slovenia, Latvia, Chile, Luxembourg and Switzerland had lower voter participation rates than the U.S.