Voter turnout: at home and abroad

On the foot of the high turnout in the recent US election, Katie Larkin examines how we can create a more accessible voting system in Ireland.

The 2020 Presidential Election in the United States of America saw its highest turnout since 1908, with 65.1% of the population voting for their chosen candidate. The election was intensively covered by the media and is possibly one of the most important elections in modern American history. High-stake topics such as healthcare, racism, climate change and Covid-19 were central issues in the run-up to the election, and explain why the US saw a record-high turnout of almost 150 million citizens. 

A hot topic throughout this election was mail-in ballots. Mail-in voting was popular in this election, in particular, due to the coronavirus pandemic. 65 million Americans posted by mail, according to This astronomically high number led to a positive result for the Democratic candidate and President-Elect, Joe Biden. Americans can vote by mail without any justification as to why in most states. 

53-55% of 18-24 year olds also voted in this election, the highest ever in modern politics, according to Simon Rosenberg, president of New Democrat Network (NDN) and the New Policy Institute. 65% of this bracket voted Democrat. This high number of young voters can be tied to the large stakes involved, as well as the large media presence that was seen in the run-up to the election. There was an incredible pressure from the media to get out and vote such as #GenZForBiden, a popular hashtag on the content sharing app TikTok. The hashtag was used by many big-name creators and held 31.3 million views in total. 

Many celebrities also expressed their encouragement for people to vote, such as Disney actress and singer Selena Gomez, who held an Instagram live stream with Vice President-Elect, Kamala Harris. Other celebrities included Beyoncé, who posted an image with the hashtag #VOTE, actor Timothee Chalamet who posted to his Instagram story stating “Vote that fucker out”, and controversially, model Karlie Kloss posted a photo on Instagram, sporting a Biden-Harris mask, along with her ballot with the caption #voteBLUE. Kloss has ties to the Trump family, she is married to Joshua Kushner, brother of Jared Kushner, who is husband to Ivanka Trump and Senior Advisor to the President of The United States, Donald Trump. 

When looking at the US election in comparison with Ireland's 2020 election, we had a similar turnout of 62.1%, but this was a decrease from 2016 of 2.2%. It is hard to tell why there was a decrease, perhaps 2016 held higher stakes with issues such as Brexit. The younger vote from people aged 18-24 was vital in the Irish election as well as the US election. Younger voters tend to vote for left-leaning parties, such as Sinn Féin and the Green Party. This is likely because of their media presence and topics such as climate change, racism and women’s rights being constantly talked about on sites such as Instagram on Twitter. 

However, Ireland seems to have a lower turnout than some other European countries with similar election practices. Ireland has no mail-in voting option, and elections take place all on the one day. It is also near impossible for Irish citizens living abroad to vote unless they are present at a polling station. Many young people voting for the first time in the February election found it really difficult to register to vote in the first place. The documents which must be printed off and filled out can be difficult to find online and also must go to a Garda station for approval, which often consisted of a long wait. They then had to post it by a certain date. All in all, the registration process was probably harder than picking a candidate to vote for. Anecdotal evidence shows there are people who didn’t bother voting as the registration process was too arduous. 

When comparing Ireland to Belgium, it’s difficult to understand why Ireland’s registration process is so complicated. In Belgium, once you turn 18 you are automatically placed on the Register of Electors. This avoids a large hassle for first-time voters. Belgium requires all citizens to vote in elections and is punishable by fines if unjustified abstention takes place. Though, Belgium has had a fairly complicated government of late and only recently formed a 7-party coalition after 653 days of negotiations. 

Austria allows for mail-in voting without justification, similar to the US. They have allowed this since 2007. In 2017, 15% of votes were mail-in and the country saw an 80% turnout. Maybe the key to higher turnouts is by making voting more accessible in the first place. 

In challenging times such as these, it is important a trusted government is in power, whether it be a single party or a coalition. Ireland has an awful long way to go, but hopefully, we will see a more accessible voting system in future elections to come