U.S. Voter Turnout: Better Than You Might Think

For a long time, curmudgeonly commentators lamented the decline of voter turnout in America. Fewer and fewer of us found our way to the polls, distracted as we were by the love lives of motion picture celebrities or the latest models of sporting motor car. But then about a decade ago, something strange happened. First, some political scientists realized that everyone was measuring voter turnout wrong. The accepted rates, which said that fewer than half of Americans turned out on election day, were based on census data of the voting-age population (VAP). The problem is that there are a lot of people who are of voting age but aren't eligible to vote, either because they aren't citizens, or have had their voting rights taken away because they committed a felony (you can read about that in this article by Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin). When researchers looked at the population of voting-eligible citizens (VEP), it turned out that the numbers looked better than had been previously thought. And second, voter turnout began going up.

The highest voter turnout in the post-war period was in 1960, when 63.8 percent of the voting-eligible population came to the polls. It did decline slightly for a few years thereafter, but it went back up over 60 percent in 1992, then fell to its lowest post-war point (52.6 percent) in 1996, an election in which things were going well in the country, reducing any particular sense of urgency, and most critically, one candidate led comfortably throughout (one of the things that gets people to the polls is a close race). But then turnout increased in 2000, increased again in 2004, and increased again in 2008. The turnout of 61.6 percent in 2008 was the highest since 1964.

We don't know what it will be this year, but the combination of an extremely close race and the campaigns' increasingly sophisticated ground efforts, which ensure that potential voters are besieged by entreaties to get their butts to the polls, could push turnout even higher. That isn't to say it shouldn't be higher than it is; we rank in the lower half among advanced democracies (the average turnout among OECD countries is 70 percent). But given that we can't even get our act together enough to make it so people don't have to wait on line for five hours, and none of us have much confidence that our votes are going to be counted accurately, when it comes to getting out to vote, we're not doing too bad.

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