In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Electoral Reform and Voting in the United States

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  • Journals

Political Science Electoral Reform and Voting in the United States
Elliott Fullmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0241


There is perhaps nothing more central to democratic governance than the act of voting. Casting a ballot is the mechanism through which citizens are able to hire and fire their representatives. While the United States has contributed much to the history of democracy, it consistently features lower voter turnout than nearly all other industrialized nations. In 2016, 61 percent of eligible Americans cast a ballot in the presidential election. This was one of the higher figures seen since the 1960s, but it was still considerably lower than the typical rate in much of the democratic world. Low turnout has been blamed on many factors, including winner-take-all elections, the two-party system, a sense of disillusionment by some citizens, and the inconvenience of voting. While the United States does not require citizens to vote, several electoral reforms have sought to improve participation by making voting more convenient. Reforms—mostly adopted at the state and local levels of government—have allowed voters to cast ballots before Election Day, automatically receive ballots through the mail, and register to vote at convenient times. Meanwhile, policies that require citizens to present photo identification at the polls have been accused of lowering voter participation. Further, state laws that disenfranchise those with a felony conviction effectively reduce the eligible voter pool. Political scientists have studied the evolution and effects of these policies in both texts and peer-reviewed journal articles.


Various texts have provided an overview of reform efforts and their effects. Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980 uses the 1972 and 1974 Census Population Surveys (CPS) to identify groups in the electorate more likely to vote. The text also discusses the role of registration requirements in predicting turnout. Keyssar 2009 explores the history of voting rights in the United States, while also chronicling contemporary debates regarding access to the polls. Leighley and Nagler 2014 offers a thorough analysis of voters and nonvoters since 1972, identifying a number of factors as predictors of voting. King and Hale 2016 is an edited volume that highlights research on numerous policies believed to affect turnout, including early and absentee voting, voter identification requirements, and registration rules. Springer 2014 explores electoral reform efforts from 1920 to 2000. Noting that US states have very different electoral histories, the author concludes that no single national reform has (or can) uniformly improve political participation. Rather, policies must consider a state’s historical and political context to be effective.

  • Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

    A thorough history of voting rights in the United States, including suffrage movements and modern debates over access to the polls.

  • King, Bridgett A., and Kathleen Hale, eds. Why Don’t Americans Vote? Causes and Consequences. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016.

    An edited volume that explores a broad range of causes for low voter turnout in the United States, including voter apathy and the many inconveniences of the process.

  • Leighley, Jan, and Jonathan Nagler. Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    A comprehensive profile and analysis of voters and nonvoters since 1972. The text identifies demographic predictors of turnout, as well as the role of various reforms aimed at increasing participation.

  • Springer, Melanie Jean. How the States Shaped the Nation: American Electoral Institutions and Voter Turnout, 1920–2000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114354.001.0001

    A thorough text that examines the importance of state norms and electoral institutions in determining political participation. The text argues that electoral reform has different effects in different states, owing to the varying challenges and historical contexts that exist across the country.

  • Wolfinger, Raymond E., and Steven J. Rosenstone. Who Votes? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

    Based on data from the Census Bureau, the authors identify social and economic groups that are most likely to vote, as well as general influences on voter participation.

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