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The battle over voter turnout
And its history
Since the 2020 election, dozens of states have passed laws likely to influence voter turnout. According to the Brennan Center, 19 states have adopted measures that will probably decrease the vote, while 25 states have taken steps to increase the vote. The restricting states tend to be majority Republican and the loosening states Democratic, but there is some overlap, with New York and Oklahoma, for example, passing both restricting and loosening laws.
The arguments for both kinds of laws are couched in terms of devotion to democracy. The restrictors assert a desire to ensure the validity of votes, the looseners to guarantee the fullest access to the polls. The looseners have the better case here, largely because the restrictors have failed to produce evidence of any significant fraud in the past—including the 2020 election, despite determined efforts by Republicans to uncover crooked ballots or sneaky counting.
But both sides have patently partisan aims, as well. Both parties believe that smaller turnouts favor Republican candidates and larger turnouts Democrats. This certainly appears to have been the case in the 2020 election, which turned out a recent record of 67 percent of eligible voters and gave Joe Biden a popular margin of 7 million votes over Donald Trump.
It wasn’t always so. Figures compiled by the American Presidency Project dating back to 1828 (before which time state legislatures, rather than voters, often chose electors) show an ebb and flow of voter turnout, with neither favoring one party or the other consistently. The elections of 1828, 1832 and 1836, won by Democrats Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, had turnouts in the 50s of percentage. In the 1840 election, the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign of Whig William Henry Harrison helped draw 80 percent to the polls, and carried Harrison to victory.
Turnout remained above 70 percent through the end of the nineteenth century, with the exception of the 1852 contest between Democrat Franklin Pierce and Whig Winfield Scott, which turned out 69.6 percent and gave the White House to Pierce.
The two most consequential elections of the era appropriately drew the largest portion of voters. In 1860, 81.2 percent turned out in the four-way contest that made Republican Abraham Lincoln president. In 1876, 81.8 percent voted and delivered a popular-vote victory to Democrat Samuel Tilden. The electoral vote was disputed, though, and wasn’t resolved until a deal was brokered in Congress giving Republican Rutherford Hayes the presidency and the Democratic South a promise to end Reconstruction.
The nearly 82 percent in 1876 proved to be the high-water mark for voter turnout. Voting gradually declined, to 76 percent in Democrat Grover Cleveland’s 1892 victory and 65 percent in Republican Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 win. Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 triumph signaled the first time since 1836 that turnout fell below 60 percent—to 58 percent.
Turnout dropped sharply further in 1920, when the franchise—the eligible voting population—expanded dramatically upon the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment. Though women now had the right to vote, many took time to acquire the habit. In 1920 and 1924, turnout was below 50 percent. It didn’t hit 60 percent again until 1952.
The close race of 1960, in which the Catholicism of Democrat John Kennedy inspired voters both for and against him, turned out 62.8 percent, the highest figure until 2020. For most of those six decades, turnout languished in the low 50s. In 1996 it bottomed out at 49 percent.*
In this era of low turnout, Republicans and Democrats alternated in the White House at almost eight-year intervals. Neither party showed much interest in trying either to suppress or expand the vote. Barack Obama, the first black major-party candidate, bumped up the turnout in 2008, but it fell back in 2012. The 2016 election was distinguished by patent loathing among Republicans for Democrat Hillary Clinton and among Democrats for Republican Donald Trump, but the turnout needle barely moved.
Yet it was the 2016 election that generated renewed interest in turnout in both parties. Despite winning the electoral vote and hence the presidency, Trump claimed that Clinton’s popular-vote victory was fraudulent. He never produced evidence in support of his claim, but its repetition changed the tone of Republican conversations on voting.
Repeated after the 2020 election, the fraud cry motivated the January 6 assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters, and, after Republican state legislatures began to meet in 2021, it drove the current Republican campaign to restrict voting.
In opposition to those efforts, but also in response to Joe Biden’s big victory, the result of the largest turnout since the early twentieth century, Democrats took steps to encourage even larger turnouts in the future.
Whether Republican efforts or the Democratic will be the more successful remains to be seen. Much might depend on whether Trump is on the ballot in 2024.
But neither side directly addresses an issue that ought to worry anyone concerned about the fate of American democracy, namely the apathy of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t vote at all. Even in the landslide elections of the last century—Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1936, Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964, Ronald Reagan’s in 1984—the winners got the votes of barely a third of eligible electorate. Biden’s record total of 81 million votes was no landslide, but it too was only slightly more than a third of eligible voters.
What to do about this is hard to tell. Some countries require citizens to vote. But compulsory votes might be even less informed than many votes are today. Other approaches will be considered in this space in the future. Meanwhile, please offer suggestions in the comment section below.
But one thing should be said. Any party that attempts to restrict voting ought to be required to show indisputable evidence that such restriction is necessary. Before the Democrats get too smug about this, they should recall that during the long decades of the Jim Crow era they were the champions of voter suppression, all across the South. At the moment, though, it’s the Republicans who are on the wrong side of the issue, and the wrong side of democracy.
* In the data set cited, figures from 1980 forward distinguish “voting eligible population” from “voting age population.” The former is smaller, as it excludes many felons and resident non-citizens. The smaller denominator yields a larger ratio for the turnout. But for comparison’s sake with the earlier figures, I here stick with the voting age population, which in the data set does reflect changes in the Constitution, e.g. the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments.