NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 2, 2004

Voter advocates have decried the decline in voter turnout, blaming campaign contributions by wealthy special interests and negative political ads on the supposedly cynical attitudes of eligible voters.

At issue are three commonly perceived myths about voter turnout:

  • Voter turnout has steadily declined since the 1960s due to disenfranchised and discouraged voters not going to the polls.
  • Campaign contributions by wealthy donors have created a general cynicism and distrust of government in its ability to do the right thing, therefore decreasing voter turnout.
  • Negative political ads are negatively correlated with voter turnout.

However, a report by John Samples of the Cato Institute analyzes the empirical evidence behind voter turnout.

  • Political scientist Michael McDonald points out that the pool of eligible voters of voting age has actually shrunk over time; when controlling for this phenomenon, voter turnout has remained relatively flat or slightly downward since the 1970s, with a few peak periods in between.
  • Campaign contributions have indeed increased since the 1970s, but surveys indicate that people's trust in government has risen and declined over the years and in no way correlates with campaign contributions.
  • An analysis of ads run during the 1996 presidential race showed that negative ads substantially increased voter turnout; in fact, exposing the average voter to negative ads increases his/her likelihood of voting by 3 to 10 percent.

Attempts to control the flow of campaign money or stifle political speech run afoul of First Amendment, limit the rights of voters and would likely do little to improve voter turnout, says Samples.

Source: John Samples, "Three Myths About Voter Turnout in the United States," Policy Analysis 524, September 14, 2004, Cato Institute.

For text


Browse more articles on Government Issues