These formal requirements - at least eighteen years of age, U.S. citizenship, Texas residency, voter registration, mental competence, and freedom from any felony conviction - tell us little about who actually votes. As we know from both voter turnout data and the flood of public service announcements during election season that urge people to vote, one cannot predict voter turnout from voter eligibility.
A significant percentage of eligible Americans and Texans simply do not register or vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau only 59.5 percent of U.S. citizens voted in the general elections in November 2000. Notably, only 54.1 percent of Texas citizens voted in that same election, even though the state's very popular governor was running for President. The figures for voter turnout are generally much lower for off-year (i.e., non-presidential) elections, even lower for party primaries, and often dismally low for special elections.
The type and timing of elections are important in understanding voter turnout. But election characteristics interact in complex ways with voter characteristics such as age, income, education, and race or ethnicity to shape patterns of non-voting, as this chapter's Thinking Comparatively feature The Demographics of Voting illustrates. In general, citizens who are older, white, or more educated are more likely to vote than younger, non-white, or less educated citizens.
Data on turnout for the November 2000 national elections collected by the U.S. Bureau of the Census shows that barely more than a third of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in November 2000, while almost three-fourths of those between 65 and 74 voted. Also, the census data showed that there was a big difference in voting rates between those with a high school degree and those who went on to earn a college degree.
Differences in reported voting were also evident among racial groups. Whites (non-Hispanic) tended to vote at the highest rate, followed in order by non-Hispanic Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian and Pacific Islanders.
This does not mean that characteristics related to age, race, and education in themselves inhibit voting. Instead, it suggests that barriers to voting exist that tend to discourage voting by people in some groups more than others. Explaining patterns of voting and non-voting requires explaining how and why people decide whether to vote.