Thomas Schaller a short piece, the first of two apparently, over at fivethirtyeight.com on how turnout rates changed in U.S. general elections between 2006 and 2008. The short answer is plenty; on average in the United States of America 52.7 per cent more people voted in 2008 than in 2006.
Turnout in 2006, in other words, was about . In 2008, it was about .
There are some interesting ramifications for individual senate races in these statistics. Conventional political wisdom, , holds that high turnout generally helps Democrats, since marginal voters (particularly the poor and minorities) trend democratic; this is one of the factors behind the Republican against ACORN, a collection of community organizations which, among other functions, holds voter registration drives in poor neighbourhoods. Certainly it will impact Democratic candidates in 2010 if/when voters Obama drew out for 2008 stay home.
But let’s back away from individual races for a second and think about what this means more broadly: in half of the elections in the United States of America, well over half the population doesn’t bother to vote at all. For both the House and the Senate, every second race a candidate runs in will be a midterm election, so any member of congress who wins election twice (and the of them do) will be seated at least once with the support of a potentially tiny fraction of his or her constituency.
Turnout rates in the United States are than those in Canada to begin with, but in midterm elections the gap is substantially larger. And as important as the president is, Congress is where laws are actually made; the president only participates directly in legislation when exercising a veto.
The point I’m getting around to is that the attention the president gets actually harms the democratic process in the America, by implying that “off-year” elections (even the label is telling) are unimportant. Think about it. If the advantages of incumbency are strong enough, as per the Newsweek article above, that as many as 90% of incumbents are re-elected, and as presumably about half of newly elected congresspeople are elected for the first time in off-years, then a considerable number of sitting legislators, the men and women who actually write laws and put them into effect in the U.S., are in office with alarmingly thin mandates.
Canada doesn’t have off-year elections. Incumbency is a factor here, of course, though seemingly than in the states, but every federal election in Canada is a “real” election, and a reasonable portion of the population participates in each. And I think this speaks well of our democracy, all else being equal.