Political participation is any number of voluntary activities undertaken by the public to influence public policy either directly or by affecting the selection of persons who make those policies. Though typically associated with voting in elections, political participation includes activities such as working on political campaigns, donating money to candidates or causes, contacting public officials, petitioning, protesting, and working with other people on issues.
Key Takeaways: Political Participation
- Political participation describes any number of activities intended to influence public policy voluntarily undertaken by the public.
- Besides voting, political participation may include activities such as working on campaigns, donating money to candidates or causes, contacting public officials, petitioning, and protesting.
- The health of a democratic nation’s government is often measured by how actively its citizens participate in politics.
- Political apathy, a total lack of interest in politics or government contributes to the United States suffering one of the lowest percentages of voter turnout among the world’s major democracies.
Considered one of the most impactful expressions of patriotism, voting is the primary means of participating in politics. No other political activity allows the opinions of more people to be represented than voting. As one of the basic principles of participatory democracy, each citizen gets one vote and each vote counts equally.
In the United States, registered voters must meet eligibility requirements allowing them to vote in a given locality. Voters must be U.S. citizens at least 18 years of on the date of the election. In addition, states can impose residency requirements mandating how long a person must have lived in a location before being eligible to vote. Most recently, 12 states have enacted laws requiring voters to show some form of photo identification, with several other states considering similar legislation. The majority of legally registered voters vote in presidential elections.
Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the pool of eligible voters has expanded from white, male property owners, to include black men after the Civil War, women after 1920, and 18- to 20-year-olds after 1971. In the 1800s, when the pool of eligible voters was far less diverse than it is today, voter turnout consistently exceeded 70 percent.
Voting is both a privilege and a right. While studies have shown that over 90% of Americans agree that citizens have a duty to vote, many people fail to vote regularly.
Typically, fewer than 25% of eligible voters participate in local, county, and state elections. Just over 30% of eligible voters participate in midterm elections, in which members of Congress run for office in nonpresidential-election years. Voter turnout in presidential elections is generally higher, with around 50% of the eligible voters casting ballots.
In the 2016 presidential election, nearly 56% of the U.S. voting-age population cast a ballot. That represented a slight uptick from 2012 but was lower than in 2008 when turnout topped 58% of the voting-age population. Turnout soared to a record high in the 2020 election when nearly 66% of eligible U.S. voters cast ballots.
While figures for the 2020 election are not yet calculated, the 56% voter turnout in 2016 put the U.S. behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most of whose members are highly developed democratic countries. Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each OECD nation for which data was available, the U.S. placed 30th out of 35 nations.
Impediments to Voting
Reasons for not voting are both personal and institutional. Between federal, state, and local governments, the United States holds countless elections, each governed by specific rules and schedules. As a result, people may become confused or simply grow tired of voting.
The United States is one of only nine democratic nations in which general elections are held on a weekday. Under a law enacted in 1854, federal elections, including presidential elections, must be held on Tuesdays. This requires millions of Americans to vote while working around the demands of their jobs—voting before work, taking an extra-long lunch break, or going after work, hoping to make it before the polls close.
In the 1860s, states and large cities implemented voter registration laws to ensure that only citizens who met legal residency requirements could vote. For years, closing voter registration weeks or months in advance of elections effectively disenfranchised many voters. Today 18 states, including California, Illinois, and Michigan, allow people to register on Election Day. Voter turnout in states that have Election Day registration averages ten points higher than in the rest of the country.
The United States is also one of the few democracies that requires citizens to register themselves rather than being automatically registered to vote by the government. In 1993, however, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act. Better known as the “motor voter” act, the law allows citizens to register at state motor vehicle and social service offices. More recently, voter registration has been further assisted by online registration. Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia offer online registration.
In all but four states—Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont—prison inmates serving time for committing felony crimes lose their right to vote. In 21 states, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated, and receive automatic restoration upon release. In 16 states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration, and for some time after, typically while on parole or probation. States deny convicted felons voting rights based on the Fourteenth Amendment, which stipulates that voting rights of persons found guilty of “participation in rebellion, or other crime” can be denied. By some estimates, almost 6 million people are excluded from voting by this practice.
Participation Beyond the Polls
While voting is an important form of citizen participation in politics, it takes place only periodically. Besides voting, citizens have several other ways to take part in politics, each involving varying amounts of time, skill, and resources.
Contacting Public Officials
Expressing opinions to elected leaders is a vital avenue of political participation. Most politicians are keenly interested in public opinion. Since the 1970s, the number of people contacting public officials at all levels of government has risen sharply and steadily. In 1976, during America’s Bicentennial, only about 17% of Americans contacted a public official. In 2008, over 44% of the public had contacted their member of Congress either in writing or in person. While email has made the process easier and cheaper, elected officials agree that well-written letters or face-to-face meetings remain more effective.
Donating Money, Time, and Effort to a Campaign
Attributed largely to the interest stirred by the candidacy of Barack Obama, over 17% of the American public contributed money to a presidential candidate in the 2008 election. Another 25% gave money to a cause or interest group. During the 2020 presidential campaign, candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden gathered a combined $3.65 billion in contributions. Since the 1960s, contributions to candidates, parties, or political action committees have increased substantially, as email, social media, and candidate websites have made fundraising easier. While the influence of money in politics is widely criticized as a way for candidates to “buy” their way into office, fundraising campaigns help make people aware of candidates and issues.
Bedsides contributing money, about 15% of Americans work for candidates or political parties by preparing and distributing campaign material, recruiting supporters, organizing campaign events, and discussing candidates and issues with the public.
Running for an elected office is perhaps the most personally demanding, yet potentially rewarding avenue of political participation. Being a public official requires a great deal of dedication, time, energy, and money. At any time, about 3% of the adult American population holds an elected or appointed public office.
Protest and Activism
As another form of political participation, public protest and activism may involve unconventional and sometimes unlawful actions intended to bring about change in social, political, or economic policy. Used effectively during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, people may take part in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, during which they deliberately break laws that they consider to be unjust. For example, sit-ins, such as the Greensboro sit-in staged by four Black college students at the lunch counter of a North Carolina Woolworth’s store in 1960, were effective in ending de jure racial segregation. When they see no conventional means getting their message across, members of social movements may resort to harmful acts of political extremism like bombing or rioting.
Social Movements and Groups
Many Americans participate in national and community political affairs by joining grassroots movements and single-issue special interest groups. Proliferating since the 1970s, these non-profit groups are as diverse as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which supports animal rights, to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which advocates for stiffer penalties for impaired driving convictions.
Symbolic Participation and Non-Participation
Routine or habitual acts such as saluting the flag, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and sing the national anthem at sporting events show support for American values and the political system. On the other hand, some people choose not to vote as a means of expressing their dissatisfaction with the government.
Political apathy is best described as a total lack of interest in politics and in participating in political activities such as election campaigns, candidate rallies, public meetings, and voting.
Since the health of a nation’s government is often measured by how actively its citizens participate in politics, apathy poses a serious problem. When citizens fail to participate in politics, democracy fails to represent their interests. As a result, public policy often favors the less apathetic population as opposed to the more apathetic population—the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” effect.
Political apathy is often caused by a lack of understanding of politics and government. Politically apathetic people see little value in voting or from the benefits and costs of the government policies being considered. They often see no personal benefit in expending the effort needed to gain political knowledge.
However, it is possible for people who have a thorough understanding of politics to remain willfully apathetic towards it. In this context, it is important to distinguish between political apathy and political abstention—a deliberate decision not to participate in the political process as a way of sending a message to politicians.
According to a 2015 study conducted by Google Research, 48.9% of the United States adult population consider themselves to be “Interested Bystanders”—people who pay attention to political and social issues around them but choose not to actively voice their opinions or take action on those issues. Of the self-proclaimed interested bystanders interviewed by researchers, 32% said they were too busy to participate, 27% said they didn’t know what to do, and 29% felt that their participation would make no difference.
Political apathy tends to be more prevalent among younger voters. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), only 21% of youths eligible to vote in the United States between ages 18–21 voted or were politically active in 2010. About 16% of youths considered themselves to be “civically alienated,” while another 14% felt “politically marginalized.”
Many apathetic people report feeling too intimidated by America’s heated political climate to do their research into politics. Elements such as media bias and complexity of issues create the danger of otherwise politically apathetic people acting based on intentionally distributed misinformation.
While countless ways of combatting political apathy have been suggested, most focus on improved voter education and a renewed emphasis on teaching basic civics and government in America’s schools. Theoretically, this would enable citizens to more clearly understand the issues and how they might impact their own lives, thus encouraging them to form opinions and taking participatory steps to act on them.