Stand up for facts and support PolitiFact.
Now is your chance to go on the record as supporting trusted, factual information by joining PolitiFact’s Truth Squad. Contributions or gifts to PolitiFact, which is part of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Poynter Institute, are tax deductible.
I would like to contribute
Does the United States have a lower voter turnout rate than countries from Germany to Greece, and the Netherlands to New Zealand?
Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told a crowd in San Diego Tuesday night that America lags far behind the world’s major countries in carrying out this civic duty.
"Today, the United States has, sadly, one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country on earth," Sanders claimed.
Sanders makes the claim about low voter turnout at the 17:08 minute mark in the above C-SPAN.org video.
Sanders added in a news conference on Wednesday that high voter turnout – particularly among younger and progressive Californians – is key to him winning the Golden State, where turnout has plummeted in recent elections.
And while California’s voting struggles have been well documented, we decided to check Sanders’ claim that the country as a whole is mired in a deep turnout slump.
The iconoclastic politician has captured strong support from young people during his run for president. That group has traditionally lagged behind on voter turnout.
Experts say he must continue to persuade them to vote in high numbers to stand a chance of upsetting frontrunner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Sanders campaign had not responded to our request for sources backing up the senator’s claim. But, we found, there’s not much debate about America’s poor voting rate.
Last May, the Pew Research Center ranked the United States 31st among 34 developed countries in voting turnout. The center examined votes cast as a percentage of countries’ estimated voting-age population.
Looking at votes cast for president in 2012, turnout in the United States was 53.6 percent. The highest comparable rates were in Belgium (87.2 percent), Turkey (86.4 percent) and Sweden (82.6 percent). Meanwhile, Germany had a 66 percent turnout and the United Kingdom’s rate was 61 percent. Smaller players on the national stage, such as Greece, the Netherlands and New Zealand, also all outranked America by a wide margin.
Of course, there’s a big caveat.
Nearly 30 countries, including six in the group studied by the Pew Research Center, have compulsory voting, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Those include Belgium and Turkey, which had the highest turnout rates.
Another factor at play is that many countries, like Sweden and Germany, automatically register citizens to vote. In the United States, that responsibility tends to rest with the individual.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has made boosting voter turnout a big part of his presidential campaign. He continued that focus in San Diego by saying the United States "has, sadly, one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country on earth."
Research on the topic shows the United States does, indeed, rank near the bottom in turnout among developed countries.
But unlike the U.S., some of those countries require their citizens to cast ballots. And others automatically register them to vote.
Sanders’ statement wasn’t wrong, but it left out information that would have helped paint the full picture.
We rate his claim Mostly True.
In the end, we rate the claim Mostly True.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
Bernie Sanders, campaign speech, C-SPAN.org video, March 23, 2016
Pew Research Center, "U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries," May 2015
PolitiFact, "Checking Bernie Sanders on Americans' low voter-turnout rates", April 2, 2015
Huffington Post, "American Voter Turnout Lower Than Other Wealthy Countries," Sept. 9, 2012
Sacramento Bee, "California’s record-low voter turnout stirs anxieties," Dec. 1, 2014
San Diego Union-Tribune, "Sanders says progressives, turnout are key to winning in West", March 23, 2016
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Voter turnout database, accessed March 23, 2016
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.