The United States’ History of Voter Turnout


Kaelyn Klatte, Staff Writer

In the chaos of these past few months, one question has been on every American’s mind: which candidate is going to win the upcoming election? With the Republican and Democratic candidates constantly butting heads as we approach Election Day, the entire nation is holding their breath in apprehension. Will Joe Biden take the White House, with Kamala Harris by his side as the first female Vice President in United States history? Or will we get another four years under Trump’s America? 

The answers lie in voter turnout, an area in which the U.S. has consistently underperformed. In the 19th century, turnout hit an all-time high of over 70%, thanks to the emergence of the two party system, political party machines, increased poll stations, and techniques to mobilize voters (such as parades, speeches, and a “goods spoiling system” that rewarded voters and their elected candidates).

Many of these systems were more commonly used in larger cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, the turnout began to drop again, and in the past 100 years, the voter turnout of the eligible population has not surpassed 63%, with turnout remaining in the 50th percentile since 1972. 

At first glance, one might wonder why the U.S. trended down, with rates dropping from 62% to 49% around the year 1920. But putting this data in context reveals that this trend happened right after the passage of the 19th Amendment. There were still rules put in place that largely inhibited female voters from being able to register, and many women were never formally educated on how to cast their vote.

Similarly, many of the “incentives” that politicians used in the 19th century were criticized for bribery. Essentially, the democratic system we had in place at the time allowed for corruption. Political party machines dominated city governments, which inhibited a change in party power; the spoiling system rewarded voters and campaign workers for their support by supplying them with government positions based on loyalty instead of merit; and politicians were notorious for their heavy acceptance of bribery.

Political machines also developed ‘caging lists’ of voters that would likely vote for their opponents, and developed a system that enabled them to claim their votes as ‘fraudulent.’ Some historians even attribute the sudden rise of voter turnout to the popularization of violence and solicitation of voters before the United States adopted the “Australian ballots” that protected a voter’s right to secrecy in the early 1900s. 

Throughout the majority of the 20th century, poll restrictions, voter suppression, and similar political legislation has inhibited certain groups of people—mainly women, Indigenous Americans and African-Americans. Famous examples of these restrictions include the Grandfather clause, the literacy tests, and poll taxes. Although these outdated voting restrictions have been officially abolished, turnout remains low. 

Although modern-day suppression is a lot more subtle, similar policies still persist. Politicians, political organizations, and the public have been developing systems that bypass the Voting Rights Act, and yet continue to oppress minority communities. Many states have early registration deadlines and strict ID requirements that greatly suppress the eligible voter population. In 2016, about 18% of eligible Native Americans did not have a photo ID that met requirements—about 900,000 voters were lost to overly strict laws. 

Similarly, private organizations sometimes meddle with voter registration to benefit one party specifically. For example, in the 2004 presidential election, a private organization by the name of Voters Outreach of American collected and submitted voter registration. Another issue that has been prevalent throughout American voting history is voter intimidation. A quick Google search will show any inquirer hours of video footage where the individuals would show up to polling stations, typically armed, trying to persuade voters waiting in line.

Another theory that aims to explain our turnout is that Americans simply don’t care about their democratic rights; voters feel that they are not properly represented in the government, or believe that the system is too busy fighting amongst each other to bring about any substantial change. A more nuanced stance is that our recent voting plight really boils down to political polarization and a new American political ideology. 

As information becomes more accessible to voters via the Internet, it also becomes much easier to find and spread disinformation, especially as plenty of online content creators use these falsehoods as “clickbait.” 

So, as person X and Y follow more and more news sources that confirm their ideas on parties A and B respectively, they become more ‘radicalized’ and their viewpoints grow further apart. As the voter base of parties A and B become more radicalized, so do the politicians, media, and political parties. This is called political polarization, and it inhibits us from finding a middle ground, or a bipartisan solution to issues. 

Another side effect of political polarization is that the voters that identify as “independent,” or who find themselves in the middle ground of parties A and B, sometimes feel as though they dislike both candidates, and might ‘boycott’ the election by not participating, or may vote for a third party that has no chance of winning but aligns with their beliefs.

Political research has also discovered that some eligible voters believe that their voices are unimportant in the democratic process, and do not vote because they view it as “useless.” This ideology largely persists in the younger eligible age group (18-29 years), or in less economically affluent eligible voter groups. Of course, this view is false; it is extremely important to vote!

However, political scientists expect this election to break these habits and set the record for the highest turnout in the last decade. With the events of the past year, ranging from a global pandemic and an economic recession to peaceful-gone-violent protests, it is no surprise that both the left- and right-leaning voter bases have been mobilized.

The U.S. has about 235 million eligible voters, and political scientists estimate at least 150 million voters to show out—a 10% increase compared to the last presidential elections. As of right now, scientists are projecting a 60-69% turnout rate. If the turnout continues to be higher than scientists projected, it is likely that we might exceed 70% turnout for the first time in 120 years.