Is Voter Turnout Better Than Ever?

Why 30 percent is considered a good showing.

Voters cast their ballot

Voter turnout has been impressive so far in this year’s primaries and caucuses. In New Hampshire, a bit more than half of eligible voters cast ballots for a presidential candidate; in Florida and South Carolina, the figure was roughly one-third. Observers say anything more than 30 percent at the primaries on Super Tuesday would be considered a high turnout, but those standards still seem pretty low in absolute terms. Have Americans always been so lazy about going to the polls?

Yes and no; we go when it really, really counts. Turnout was highest for presidential elections in the 19th century and has since fallen. Nevertheless, in recent times we’ve voted in large numbers under special circumstances: if the race is tight or if important issues like war and the economy are at stake. The practice of conducting primary elections wasn’t around during the high-turnout era of the 1800s. Primaries came into widespread use in the 1970s, with participation declining up through the 1990s. In general, the turnout in these contests has always been lower than in general elections, though active participation in the former can augur high numbers on the first Tuesday in November.

In the latter half of the 1800s, participation in general elections often hovered around 80 percent of eligible voters. Note that voters back then were a smaller group of the populationwhite men who weren’t convicted criminals and, in the north, Black men. * The corrupt political machines in cities like New York and Chicago encouraged turnout with more explicit incentives: They handed out jobs, food, alcohol, and health care to cooperative citizens. (Politicians could keep tabs on who voted for which candidate because ballots weren’t secret until the end of the century.) In addition, a number of exciting presidential races in the 19th century resulted in high turnout. In 1828, large numbers of Americans headed for the polls in judgment of Andrew Jackson’s brand-new Democratic Party, four years after he’d lost an election despite winning the popular vote. In 1860, the country’s internal division over slavery urged many to vote—and helped elect Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. In 1896, farmers in the South and Midwest were motivated to vote because they were suffering from the effects of deflation and wanted relief from the new government.

Voter turnout in the 20th century typically ranged from 50 percent to 60 percent, with some dips and peaks along the way. Numbers jumped in the midst of the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal brought poor people and minorities into the Democratic Party. Turnout fell after World War II, then exceeded 60 percent during much of the 1950s and 1960s. (At the time, New York and California were both battleground states.) Participation dropped again in the 1970s and 1980s, likely because Americans had grown cynical about politics after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Given how turnout has climbed in the past few elections and how close this year’s presidential race is, some experts believe 65 percent of eligible voters will make it to the polls on Nov. 4. (That would take us closer to the 70 percent and higher turnouts common in Western European countries.)

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Explainer thanks Michael McDonald of George Mason University, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, and Brian Schaffner and James Thurber of American University.

Correction, Feb. 20, 2008: The sentence originally stated that eligible voters in the latter half of the 1800s consisted of white men who weren’t convicted criminals. In fact, Black men became eligible to vote with the 14th and 15th Amendments, but they were effectively barred from exercising that right in the former Confederate states. (Return to the corrected sentence.)