Digital History>Topics>Historiography

Why don't Americans vote?

Digital History TOPIC ID 108

For more than a quarter century participation in American elections has declined. In 1988, just 50 percent of potential voters bothered to cast votes in a Presidential election--the lowest voter participation rate since 1824. As a result, the United States has by far the lowest voter turnout of any western society.

It wasn't always so. As recently as 1960, 72.8 percent of the electorate cast ballots in a Presidential election. And back in the mid-nineteenth century, voter participation rates of more than 80 percent were common occurrences.

Why don't Americans vote? Is it because American voters are generally content with the status quo? Or because of legal obstacles that obstruct participation? Or is it due to the absence of candidates who might mobilize the disaffected voters by addressing their interests? The first point that needs to be made is that the decline in voter turnout did not emerge overnight; it has been a longterm development. It began during the late nineteenth century and was only temporarily reversed during the 1930s and 1940s.

A second point that emerges out of the study of American voting patterns is that as voter participation rates have dropped, class differences (and age differences) in voter turnout have increased. The typical voter today is relatively well off financially and over fifty years of age. Better educated, higher earning Americans vote at 70-80 percent levels, while less than two-fifths of the working class bother to vote--a forty percent gap.

Class differences in voter participation have partisan political implications. At the highest end of the income distribution, Republican votes outnumber Democratic votes by as much as 5-to-1, while the lowest income voters tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

So why don't Americans vote? Legal impediments, some say. When voter registration was first instituted at the turn of the century, participation dropped by about ten percent. The overwhelming majority of registered voters go to the polls--85 to 90 percent. So, according to this view, easing registration requirements should increase voter turnout.

Weak political stimuli, say others. Voter participation began its long-term slide during the period between 1896 and 1930, a period when the Democratic party dominated the "Solid South" and the Republican party dominated the Northeast. Voting Republican in the South or Democratic in many Northern states had little impact, and voter participation flagged.

During the Great Depression, voter turnout increased sharply as the two parties sparred over Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Economic hardship and the rise of labor unions helped to mobilize voters. The electorate grew increasingly polarized along class lines, with the Democratic share of the working class vote rising sharply and the Republican share of the upper class vote climbing.

Since 1960, voter participation has again fallen, particularly among lower class voters. Why? Many explanations have been advanced, ranging from negative campaigning to the decline of party organizations, the unwillingness of the major parties to address issues of concern to lower class voters, growing estrangement from politics traceable to the Vietnam war and political scandals such as Watergate, and the increasing conservatism of the mainstream of the Democratic party.

Questions to think about:

1. How would you explain trends in voter participation in the United States?

2. How would you reverse the trend toward declining voter turnout?

Copyright Digital History 2014