The low rates of voter turnout in the United States have generated concern among the media, general public, and a variety of academic domains. Turnout for the 2008 U.S. presidential election was 62 percent; in 2012, it was 59 percent. While it is not unusual for participation rates to fluctuate between elections, diachronic comparisons reveal a trend of overall declining rates both in the U.S. and in other industrial countries. From the viewpoint of a political scientist, low turnout is a problem because democracy relies on the election of officials by the citizenry, and the legitimacy of such elections depends on the number of citizens that participate – the level of voter turnout. I apply Systems Thinking (DSRP) analysis to better conceptualize how the problem is understood and identify where solutions may be found. In doing so, I find that most of the current approaches to dealing with voter turnout identify the solution as reducing the cost of voting. This method assumes that people do not vote because the cost of doing so is prohibitive; removing cost barriers will therefore increase voter turnout. However, through the application of Systems Thinking, I argue that this focus neglects to consider the substantial effects of benefits and political interest on voting behavior. I suggest that instead of focusing solely on cost, solutions to the problem of low and declining voter turnout may be found in alternate areas. After all, if people see no benefit to voting, or if they simply do not care, no matter how low the costs are, they still will not vote.
A problem: establishing the trend of low voter turnout
The low rates of voter turnout in the United States have generated concern among the media, general public, and a variety of academic domains. According to a New York Times article, the 2014 midterm elections yielded the lowest rates of voter turnout since WWII. “In 43 states,” the article reports, “less than half the eligible population bothered to vote, and no state broke 60 percent.” Furthermore, “in the three largest states – California, Texas and New York – less than a third of the eligible population voted.”
Figure 1. Trends in U.S. voter turnout rates
While turnout rates in midterm and congressional elections are historically lower than turnouts in presidential elections, data shows that presidential rates, as well, are low by any standard. U.S. Census Bureau data places the turnout rate among the voting eligible population for the 2008 presidential election at 62 percent – the highest rate reported since data collection and analysis began in 1972. In the 2012 presidential election, turnout dropped to 59 percent. These rates, however, were calculated based on the voting eligible population, a calculation method which inflates reported rates of turnout. Using the voting age population instead, turnout was 58.2 and 56.5 percent for the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, respectively, even lower rates.
A Pew Research Center report ranks the United States 31st of 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for turnout among the voting-age population. However, the U.S. is not the only country to report low turnout levels. A diachronic comparison of voter turnout data from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance reveals the magnitude of the decline: an average of ten percentage points in post-industrial societies since 1950. Though voter turnout has long been a subject of study by scholars interested more broadly in issues of political participation, the issue is commanding greater importance in public discussion both because of the magnitude of the recent declines, and they way in which they are being interpreted. The decline in voter turnout rates is a problem because of the relationship between voting and democratic governance.
I seek to apply Systems Thinking and DSRP analysis to the problem of low voter turnout. Here, I list the four simple rules of Systems Thinking as delineated by Cabrera and Cabrera:
- Distinctions Rule: any idea or thing can be distinguished from the other ideas or things it is with;
- Systems Rule: any idea or thing can be split into parts or lumped into a whole;
- Relationships Rule: any idea or thing can relate to other things or ideas; and
- Perspectives Rule: any thing or idea can be the point or view of a perspective.
Systems Thinking makes complex problems simpler and easier to comprehend by identifying larger-scale emergent phenomena and organizing a system’s component parts in new ways.
An analysis: understanding the problem using DSRP
My analysis began with contextualizing the problem. With my political science background, I know that voting is just one form of political participation. But what is “political participation?” Political science scholars tend to apply a very precise definition to a term or to use one term to refer to a variety of different concepts. A lack of uniformity among terms and concepts can make dialogue difficult. Thus, I define political participation as any activity that shapes, affects, or involves the political sphere.
The Distinctions Rule of Systems Thinking enabled differentiation between what is political participation and what is not. Furthermore, the Systems Rule allowed me to subdivide the broad concept of political participation. Voting is one part of the whole system. While I understood this before, Systems Thinking highlighted this explicit partition.
My main focus was on the practice of voting as a subset of political participation—specifically the problem of low and declining voter turnout. I viewed the problem as one pertaining to the relationship between individuals and voter turnout, as per the Relationships Rule. It was possible to examine the relationship even further by formulating an As previously stated, the relationship between individuals and turnout is that voting turnout levels are low. Having identified the relationship, I then sought to distinguish the components of that relationship and answer the question, “what makes voter turnout low?” By systematizing, we better understand the problems we consider, and we are better placed to develop solutions.
Figure 2. RDS barbell relating individuals to turnout
Not only do we want to know “do people participate?” – the answer being “sometimes” – but we also want to know how, when, why, who, and to a lesser extent where. These are the “Big Questions” of political participation and the crux of what we want to understand. As per the Perspectives Rule of Systems Thinking, the Big Questions also form the perspective through which I analyzed low voter turnout. To answer these questions, political scientists have developed a number of theories. (See Figure 2 for expanded RDS barbell). For example, rational choice theory states that a rational individual makes the decision whether or not to vote based on a cost-benefit calculation. If the benefits outweigh the costs, the individual will vote. However, applying this model produces the paradox of voting: data shows that people sometimes vote even when the costs outweigh the benefits. Another model, the socioeconomic status (SES) model, aims to show how individual resources, preferences, identifications, and beliefs affect and determine an individual’s perception of his or her own costs and benefits. Wealth, age, education, and time are among the factors that affect the decision to vote. The final theory, the resource model, is similar to the SES model, but it also takes into account the level of civic skill an individual has acquired. The difference is that civic skill and experience are not necessarily related to any measure of socioeconomic status.
One theme that emerged from the application of Systems Thinking was the importance of cost/benefit calculations and the mitigating factors that can lower the cost enough to incentivize an individual to vote. This is the key relationship among the theories that unified them. These theories provided the basis for explaining voter turnout and political participation: each theory being part and whole simultaneously. And while the theories sought to explain behavior, placing this problem within a Systems Thinking framework pointed to a possible solution within them. By addressing the who, why, and when of voting, by breaking the theories down into even smaller parts, and by considering the relationships between theories, I identified the key areas that affect voter behavior.
Figure 3. Expanded RDS barbell: Theories and Questions
I then noticed, using the Perspectives Rule, two perspectives (individual and institutional) that are often applied to interpret the factors that we can change. Depending on which perspective was chosen, very different conclusions arose about which factors are actually key to affecting voter turnout. The individual perspective focused much more on a citizen’s resources (including socioeconomic ones) in calculating the ease of voting. The institutional perspective, on the other hand, focused on the configuration of the political environment, examining.factors such as registration practices, election dates, type of election, and the use of absentee/mail-in/early/electronic/manual balloting. Both perspectives were integral to understanding and addressing the problem of voter turnout because all of the factors should be considered. This is something that I had not considered prior to Systems Thinking: the interaction between different approaches (individual and institutional) to addressing key elements of a voting solution.
Utilizing a Systems Thinking process, I have arrived at a more comprehensive view of the problem, and have better understood it. I have made the distinction between political participation and non-political participation, and I have established that voting is just one form (part) of such participation. Furthermore, I have examined the theories that address the relationship between individuals and turnout, breaking each down into smaller parts, and viewed them from different perspectives (see Figure 3). A better understanding of the problem and how it has been approached in the past leads to better analyses, and hopefully to better solutions. Systems Thinking highlighted key factors that these solutions needed to take into account, and formed a set of solution specifications.
The difference: same problem, reimagined solutions using DSRP
As a result of using Systems Thinking to try to understand the problem, I also noticed that most solutions to the problem–as it was imagined–focus on reducing the cost, at the expense of the other factors in the equation (benefits, for example, and a personal proclivity to participate). Systems Thinking made me consider what was not being addressed–and the potential it had to affect the problem. Instead of restricting the solution to lowering the cost of voting, I argue that it would be more beneficial to consider the other side of the cost-benefit equation.
If the decision whether or not to vote is one truly based on a cost/benefit calculation, if people don’t perceive some benefit to voting or if they’re not interested, minimizing the cost of voting will make no difference. Simply put: if people don’t care, people won’t vote.
Solutions to the problem of low voter turnout thus become things such as:
- Increase the benefits to voting (or increase the cost of not voting). For example, if voting becomes a social norm, the benefit of voting is society’s approval. On the other hand, the cost of not voting could include diminished social relationships, exclusion, etc.
- Increase political interest and decrease voter apathy. Statistical analyses of past elections have shown that people are more likely to participate when an electoral race is considered “close,” when the issues are salient to them, and when they feel like their vote will be decisive. Individuals are also more likely to vote if they have been socialized by their parents to do so. Data have shown that voting turnout is directly correlated with age – older cohorts tend to have higher levels of turnout. Even controlling for generation effects and age, however, the young population of today votes at a lower rate than did the young population of the past. A lot of this has to do with young people’s feelings of political disengagement, lack of confidence in the system, and political habits that have become socialized by their parents. Intervention at this level would go a long way toward reversing the trend by increasing (or “fixing” the problem of) voter
- Better understand the multidirectional relationships between costs, benefits, and interest. The solution is not likely to fall wholly in the realm of increasing the benefits or decreasing the cost of voting, And it is possible that by attempting to do one, you also inversely affect the other. However, what is needed is awareness about how these processes are linked and how they affect one another, as well as a recognition that the relationships are multidirectional.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of possible solutions. But being a systems thinker means understanding that this wicked problem is not going to be solved by applying one theory, or one solution, or by looking at it from one perspective; challenging root assumptions; and reevaluating how we think about voting. This approach opens up new avenues for dealing with the problem – and gives us a place to start.
 ‘Reported voting rates in presidential election years, by selected characteristics: November 1964 to 2012,’ US Census Bureau Population Surveys.
 Schmitter, Philippe C. and Terry Lynn Karl. 1991. “What Democracy Is… and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2(3): 75-88.
 Cabrera, Derek and Laura Cabrera (2015). Systems thinking made simple: new hope for solving wicked problems. U.S.: Odyssean Press.
 Blais, André (2000). To vote or not to vote? The merits and limits of rational choice theory. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
 Rosenstone, Steven J. and John Mark Hansen (1993). “The political logic of political participation,” in Mobilization, participation, and democracy in America. New York: Longman.
 Brady, Henry E., Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlozman, (1995). “Beyond SES: a resource model of political participation,” American political science review 89.2.
 Plutzer, Eric (2002). “Becoming a habitual voter: inertia, resources, and growth in young adulthood,” American Political Science Review 96(1): 41-56.
About the Author: Maris Hansen is a final year undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government, with minors in Law and Society, International Relations, and Business.