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Most Adults in the U.S. Don't Vote

by John Spritzler

November 7, 2012

Only about 43% of the adults in the United States actually vote. Here's how one can tell this is true.

Here's a graph of voter turnout since 1824. It has come down from about 80% in the 19th century* to around 60% in the 20th and currently. These are percents of registered voters, not of citizens who are eligible to register and who may or may not have registered. The percent of people who are eligible to register to vote that actually voted is necessarily less than the percents shown in the graph.

According to the Secretary of State for the state of Washington, based on 2012 data, 80% who can register to vote do register to vote (whether they actually vote or not is another question.) Assume that Washington state is typical in this regard.

Letting V = number who vote; R = number who register to vote; E = number who are eligible to register to vote, we have that V = .6 R, and R=.8E, which means V = (.6)(.8)E = .48E= 48% of E, which is to say that 48%, or less than half, of the people eligible to register to vote actually vote.

Now we also know that there are many residents who are not eligible to vote. People are non-citizens with green cards etc. According to the Dept. of Homeland Security (sic!) there were 31.3 million non-citizens in the U.S. in 2008. The total U.S. population was 309 million in 2010 and 315 million in 2012, so in 2008 it was probably close to 303 million. Thus 31.3/303 = .10 =10% of Americans were non-citizens in 2008. So presumably the number of people eligible to vote, E, is 90% of P, where P is the number of residents who are old enough to vote but who may or may not be citizens, so E = .9P .

Therefore we have from above that V = .48E, and E=.9P, which gives V=(.48)(.9)P = .43P = 43% of P, which is to say that only approximately 43%** of the adult residents of the United States actually vote--a distinct minority!

A boycott of the elections (for the reasons discussed here) doesn't seem that hard to imagine now, does it?


* Keep in mind that blacks did not have the Constitutional right to vote until 1870 and de facto, if not de jure, denial of this right was common after that; and women did not have the Constitutional right to vote until 1920. Any comparison, therefore, of recent turnout with past turnout percents can be misleading: a smaller percent of registered voters who actually vote today could still represent a larger proportion of all adults than the corresponding proportion implied by a larger percent of registered voters who actually voted in the 19th century. (Hat tip to B.K. for this observation.)

** This arithmetic does not explicitly take into account approximately two million prisoners in the U.S. To the extent that these prisoners are not included in the reported percents used in my calculations, there are even more adults in the U.S. who don't vote, and the percent who do vote is even less than 43%. (Hat tip to J.R. for calling this to my attention.)



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