United States Elections Project

Election of a Century?

Last updated: Jan. 17, 2009

Note: I have updated this page to include the 2008 turnout rate in the figure. I've bolded some minor editoral notes based on the 2008 election.

In a recent Politico op-ed, I argued that the turnout rate in the 2008 election has the potential to be the highest in a century of American politics. By all measures the 2008 turnout rate will most likely top the 60% turnout rate of 2004: primary voting, new registrations, survey respondents' interest in the election, small money donations are all up four years ago. The question is, by how much? If we best the 64% turnout rate in 1960, then we must look all the way back to the 66% turnout rate in 1908 - literally a century of American politics - to find the next highest turnout rate. I believe that level of turnout is attainable, and as the election nears I will be able to general relatively accurate predictions of turnout rates from early voting, which from early reports I am tracking appear to be at signficantly higher levels than 2004.

Let's place the 2008 presidential election into historical context. I plot turnout rates for presidential and midterm turnout rates among those eligible to vote below. These numbers are taken from Vital Statistics of American Politics (CQ Press, Stanley and Niemi, eds.). I provide turnout rates from 1948-the present and Walter Dean Burnham provides the historical turnout rates, for which I and many others are deeply indebted.

For those who wish to use these statistics, you can download an Excel spreadheet below. If you use this spreadsheet, please be sure to give credit for the pre-1948 turnout rates to Walter Dean Burnham, Professor Emeritus at University of Texas, Austin.

Excel Turnout Spreadhseet Turnout 1789-2008.xls

Turnout 1789-2008

Four Periods of Turnout in American Elections

I broadly categorize four eras of American politics with regard to voter turnout, The Founding Era (1789-1824), The Party Machine Era (1828-1896), The Segregation Era (1900-1948), and The Nationalization Era (1952-present).

The Founding Era (1789-1824) experienced the lowest turnout rates in American history. The 6.3% turnout in 1792 stands out at the absolute lowest, though the absence of voters is not terribly surprising given that George Washington ran unopposed. What explains lower turnout in other elections during this era is that state elections were often preeminent. During this period it was not uncommon for state legislatures to select directly the electors to the Electoral College. Furthermore, when the nation was still very much a rugged frontier, voting was not easy to do since it required people to travel far to vote at county courthouses.

The Party Machine Era (1828-1896) experienced the highest turnout rates in the nation's history, routinely exceeding 80% nationally. In this period party competition was fierce within states and across the nation. The political machines created grassroots organizations to mobilize their supporters. While much of the folklore about this era focuses on the abuses of voting buying and other corruption, it is instructive to understand that modern political scientists regard these sorts of grassroot organizations as the most effective means by which to get people to vote. The Republican's effective "72 Hour Campaign" and Sen. Obama's emphasis on building voter mobilization organizations have their roots in the person-to-person style of politics fashioned during this era.

The Segregation Era (1900-1948) is a play on words, as I mean segregation in the sense that the electorate was segregated into voters and non-voters by Progressive Era reforms that were designed to destroy the power of political machines. In the South, these same "reforms" were targeted to lower turnout among African-Americans. These reforms included, among others, secret ballot laws that made it difficult for the parties to monitor voting and reward people for voting in their preferred manner. A secret ballot law became a de facto literacy test, which was also explicitly adopted by many states. These reforms also included voter registration laws that were much more burdensome than today in that some states required voters to register as much as six months in advance of each election. It took a while for these reforms to be adopted by all states and for the power of political machines to wane, and it is in this period during the twilight of political machines that the 1908 election was held, which was the highest turnout rate in the last century. The cumulative effect of these changes in the electoral system was to reduce turnout rates by placing additional burdens on prospective voters.

The Nationalization Era (1952-present) does not look much different than the current era on the surface. In a broad context, turnout rates have not changed much in the last century. Sure, at times they have fluctuated up or down depending on the election, but in the big context we've been in a ten percentage point range of turnout rates for the past century. What is significant about the current era is that the federal government has increasingly become more involved in the conduct of elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with such barriers as literacy tests and empowered federal voter registrars to go into African-American communities in the South. Indeed, not apparent in the national numbers is a resurgence of voting among the Southern states. Other major reforms during this era include the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (aka 'Motor Voter') and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. One other significant reform is the lowering of voting eligibility from 21 to 18 in 1972, in most states. Since the youth have in the past voted at lower rates, about a third of the lower rates since 1968 can be attributed to this expansion of the electorate.

The Role of Competition is a major factor in whether or not a specific election within an era will have higher or lower turnout rate. For example, in 1996 most people knew that Bill Clinton would coast to victory over Bob Dole. As a result, only 52% of those eligible voted, the lowest turnout rate since 1924. Contrast that with the 64% turnout rate in 1960, which was one of the closest elections in modern history.

The Election of 2008

In 2008, we find ourselves in closely contested election. Furthermore, over the past decade the political parties have rediscovered that grassroots organizing is the most effective and cost-efficient method to get people to vote. With these two factors at play, we will beat the 60% turnout rate of the 2004 election. (The 2008 turnout rate is 61.7%.)

I've been repeatedly pressed to give a turnout projection. I have not created a macro-forecast model, like some political scientists who forecast presidential winners based on economic conditions, among other factors. There is a chance that American turnout will match or surpass the 1960 turnout, and if it does, that will mean approximately 136 million people voted for president (131.3 million voted for president, 132.6 total ballots were cast). That raw number will be (is) the most people who have ever voted in an American election.