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The right to vote is a privilege that many in America have fought long and hard for, yet when it comes to Election Day, the number of citizens who turn up to cast their ballots is surprisingly low. In fact, the 2016 U.S. presidential election hit a 20-year low, with about 55% of voting-age citizens hitting the polls, according to CNN.
While there’s no shortage of messaging encouraging Americans to vote, our numbers pale in comparison to other developed countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). After all, in certain countries, voting is mandatory — though they vary in degree of enforcement. But even in places where it’s optional, oftentimes a much higher percentage of eligible voters show up to exercise their privilege compared with the U.S.
A 2018 Pew Research study examined voter turnout among OECD countries (where data about the voting-age population was available). Read on for the surprising list of the countries with the highest and lowest voter turnouts.
Highest: Hungary (No. 10)
Hungary saw the highest voter turnout of any Eastern European country, with 71.65% of its eligible voters showing up to the polls in 2018. In fact, by 4:30 p.m. on election day, turnout had already exceeded that of the previous three elections. The country also changed its electoral law in 2011, consolidating the previous two rounds of voting into one, as well as dropping the number of members of parliament from 386 to 199.
Highest: Finland (No. 9)
In 2015, 73.14% of eligible Finns turned up to vote. Citizens who are 18 and older can vote in four different types of elections, with their municipality based on where they were living on the 51st day before the election. For the municipal elections, which happen every four years, citizens must also have been living in Finland consecutively for the last two years. The country's other elections include the European parliament election every five years, the parliamentary election every four years, and the presidential election every six years.
Highest: New Zealand (No. 8)
Kiwis value their power to vote, as demonstrated in the 75.65% who cast their ballots in 2017 — as well as the record numbers who voted early in the most recent October 2020 election. Around 2 million headed to the polls before election day, up from 1.24 million in 2017 and 717,579 in 2014. Registration is required to vote.
“Voting is not compulsory, but it does give you a voice in our democracy,” the island nation’s Electoral Commission’s site says. “Everyone who is enrolled to vote is also eligible to be a candidate for election as a member of Parliament.”
Highest: Israel (No. 7)
Coming in seventh place is Israel, with 76.1% of its voting-age population showing up to the 2015 election. Across the 23 elections for its legislature — called the Knesset — turnout has averaged 75.2%, according to the Jewish Virtual Library run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE).
No legislature was formed after Israel’s April 2019 election, which had a 68.5% turnout, so another was held in September 2019 that drew 69.4% of the population. Finally, a third election held in February 2020 saw 71.32% voter turnout.
Highest: The Netherlands (No. 6)
The 77.31% of the Netherlands’ voting population who turned up for the March 2017 election was substantially higher than the 71% who did so in the 2012 election. Though there aren't national requirements to head to the polls, the process is completely drama-free. “It is hard to imagine a place where it is easier to vote than in the Netherlands,” The New York Times wrote in 2017.
That’s because the nation’s 9,000 polling spots are everywhere — in train station tents, hotels, grocery stores, bars, libraries, churches, and more. And the Dutch can vote at any of the locations around the nation, which makes it uber convenient for all citizens to participate.
Highest: South Korea (No. 5)
South Korea ranks as the top Asian nation in voter turnout, with 77.92% in 2017. Even in the midst of the pandemic, its April 2020 election saw the largest turnout in almost 30 years. Not only is election day an official holiday, but voter registration also isn’t required for those 19 and older to cast their ballots. Officials have cited outreach programs to young citizens as another factor in turning out the vote. The efforts include celebrity endorsements and mock election days.
Highest: Australia (No. 4)
Down Under, voting has been mandatory in Australia since 1924. Despite that, its 2016 elections drew only 78.96% of the voting-age population to the polls. While there are some acceptable excuses to not cast a ballot, those who don’t can face fines of $20 to $80 AUD (about $14 to $57 USD) — and refusal to pay those fines can result in a prison sentence, though it’s rare in practice.
But fear may be less of a factor than fun: Elections are held on Saturdays and are accompanied by a festive atmosphere. “Voting in Australia is like a party,” Queensland resident Neil Ennis told The New York Times in 2019. “There’s a BBQ at the local school. Everyone turns up. Everyone votes. There’s a sense that: We’re all in this together. We’re all affected by the decision we make today.”
Highest: Denmark (No. 3)
Denmark, which had an 80.34% turnout in its 2015 election, can claim another notable honor, too: Its voting system has been ranked the best in the world, according to the Electoral Integrity Project, a joint effort between Harvard University and the University of Sydney.
One major reason for the high turnout may be that the country has a population of only 5.9 million. “A Dane may feel like their vote counts more than, say, a voter in a state like California that always selects the Democratic nominee,” University of Copenhagen’s Jens Olav Dahlgaard, who studies voter turnout, told the Danish site The Local in 2016.
Like Swedes, Danes are automatically registered. Additionally, political campaigns last about three weeks, creating less tension and anticipation. But ultimately, it may just come down to cultural priorities. “Scandinavian countries in general have high turnout rates,” Dahlgaard said. “We have quite strong civil norms and voter turnout is seen as a civic duty.”
Highest: Sweden (No. 2)
Just ahead of its neighbor across the Baltic is Sweden, where an impressive 82.61% of the voting population turned up to the polls in 2014, despite it not being mandatory. One possible reason? Unlike in the U.S., all eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18. The information is simply taken from the Swedish tax agency’s population register 30 days before election day.
The Scandinavian nation holds elections for their parliament — called Riksdag — every four years. And unlike the midweek Tuesday voting in America, Swedish elections are held on the second Sunday in September.
Highest: Belgium (No. 1)
For a nation with three official languages — Dutch, French, and German — Belgians are remarkably united about casting their votes. But it may not be completely attributed to the will of the citizens: The European nation is one of 27 global countries to have compulsory voting, meaning it’s required by law to participate in elections.
In fact, Belgium set the requirement in 1892 for all men, and then included women in 1949. The law is enforced, with fines imposed for those who don’t vote and a possibility of disenfranchisement if four elections are missed in 15 years. (Non-voters also often find it hard to land a job in a public sector.)
The nation has five different types of elections: municipal and provincial every six years and regional, federal, and European every five years. With all that in place, 87.21% of the voting population turned up in 2014, making it the top OECD nation for voter turnout. That’s not to say their method is perfect, though. It took 16 months from a May 2019 election for Belgium to agree on a government.
Lowest: Slovakia (No. 10)
On the other end of the spectrum are the countries with the lowest voter turnout. While Slovakia’s official count for the Pew Research study came in at 59.43% in 2016, it was reportedly even lower for the 2014 European election, with just 13% of voters participating. “Some eagerly embrace voting in the parliamentary elections as a civic responsibility and a tool for securing their children’s future,” Politico reported. “Others deride it as a useless gesture, claiming Slovakia is ignored by larger and more powerful nations and is hopelessly mired in corruption.”
Lowest: Ireland (No. 9)
Google the words, “Why don’t people vote in Ireland?” and the first thing that pops up are the words “Why Bother?” on the site vote.ie, run by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. Though it seems like a pessimistic expression, the site actually hopes to encourage more Irish to exercise their right to vote, by explaining just how important it is to bother. To vote, citizens must be Irish residents and at least 18 years old — and they need to register.
With only 58.04% turning up in 2016, the Irish are aware of the issue of low voter turnout compared with other European nations, and they are searching for explanations. Geography and demographics may both play a role, but low participation seems to be part of a worrisome trend, with turnout for general elections falling 13.5% from 1981 to 2002. “Low and declining voter turnout levels became increasingly characteristic of Irish electoral contests,” Ireland’s National Public Service RTE reported.
Lowest: Estonia (No. 8)
It might come as a surprise to see Estonia so far down on this list — with 56.82% turnout in 2015 — when it’s the world leader in electronic voting. After all, Estonians have been able to vote from any computer with an Internet connection since 2005, wherever in the world they may be on election day.
About 30% of the country's 1.3 million residents use the system, the government reported — not only is the method convenient, but it also promotes efficiency by saving working hours that would normally be spent by citizens going to the polls.
Lowest: United States (No. 7)
For one of the world’s most prominent democratic nations, the United States of America sits surprisingly near the bottom when it comes to voter turnout — just 55.7% cast votes in the 2016 presidential election. The process of registering to vote may partially explain that trend, since it’s up to each citizen to do so in accordance with their own individual jurisdiction’s regulations.
During the 2016 election, only 64% of the voting-age population was registered to vote — a stark contrast to countries like Canada (91% were registered in 2016), the United Kingdom (also with 91% in 2017), Sweden (96% in 2014), and Slovakia (99% in 2016).
Lowest: Luxembourg (No. 6)
Voting in the tiny European country of Luxembourg — which has a population of just 626,000 — is compulsory. So it’s quite a surprise that turnout was so low in 2013, at 55.12%. While fines can be imposed for not casting ballots, it’s not enforced much — and those over the age of 75 have the option to opt out. The low turnout may also be attributed to the fact that 48% of the people who live there can’t vote since they aren’t citizens.
Lowest: Slovenia (No. 5)
Slovenia’s turnout hasn’t always been as low as the 54.09% reported in 2014. Right after the country gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, an impressive 85% of the voting-age population participated. But that enthusiasm didn’t last long, and the number dropped by 31% in just 22 years.
In 2017, only 41.74% voted in Slovenia’s presidential election — which was even lower than its previous record. While there was an encouraging uptick to 52.64% turnout for the Slovenian National Assembly election in 2018, the figure trails well behind other nations.
Lowest: Poland (No. 4)
Poland saw 53.83% of eligible voters turn up to the polls in the 2015 election, which was used for the Pew Research study. But recent developments are more encouraging. Despite the fact that Poland was the first major European country to hold an election held during the pandemic, 68.2% of the nation reportedly voted, making it the highest turnout for any presidential election post-Communism since 1989. The July 12 vote was a second-round election date after the June 28 election forced a runoff.
Lowest: Chile (No. 3)
Chile saw only 52.20% voter turnout in 2017, but that was actually an improvement over its prior election. The South American country switched from mandatory to voluntary voting in 2012, but also automatically registered all its eligible citizens. Even so, in the next presidential election in 2013, only 42% voted. That pales in comparison to the 87% who voted in 2010, when casting ballots was still required by law.
The lack of interest in voting might be chalked up to “disenchantment,” the English-language Chile Today says. Those in the lower class and rural areas feel unrepresented by wealthy politicians. A 2016 poll showed that 60% of people in the nation don’t relate to any political party.
Lowest: Latvia (No. 2)
When only 51.69% of the Latvian population showed up to vote in 2014, Central Election Chairman Arnis Cimdars was quick to say that there was no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the election. He attributed the low turnout simply to how few people had a “clear position and opinion,” adding that poor planning could have also accounted for many not being able to make it to the polls.
Lowest: Switzerland (No. 1)
Switzerland has long been associated with neutrality, so perhaps that’s why it has a history of low voter turnout. The Swiss fall behind other nations by a significant percentage, with only 38.63% of eligible voters participating in the 2015 election.
One of the country’s 26 cantons (federal states) — Schaffhausen — still has compulsory voting, introduced in 1904, but the others got rid of it in 1984. Turnout was clearly higher in the first part of the 1900s, but experts point to the “frequency and complexity” of the system for the low numbers in recent years.