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Voter turnout in U.S. presidential and midterm elections 1789-2018

Throughout United States history, voter turnout among the voting eligible population has varied, ranging from below twelve percent in uncontested elections, to 83 percent in the 1876 election. In early years, turnout in presidential elections was relatively low, as the popular vote was not used in every state to decide who electors would vote for. When this was changed in the 1824 election, turnout increased dramatically, and generally fluctuated between seventy and eighty percent during the second half of the nineteenth century. Until the 1840 and 1842 elections, midterm elections also had a higher turnout rate than their corresponding presidential elections, although this trend has been reversed since these years.

Declining turnout in the twentieth century

An increase in voting rights, particularly for black males in 1870 and for women in 1920, has meant that the share of the total population who are legally eligible to vote has increased significantly; yet, as the number of people eligible to vote increased, the turnout rate generally decreased. Following enfranchisement, it would take over fifty years before the female voter turnout would reach the same level as males, and over 150 years before black voters would have a similar turnout rate to whites. A large part of this was simply the lack of a voting tradition among these voter bases; however, the Supreme Court and lawmakers across several states (especially in the south) created obstacles for black voters and actively enforced policies and practices that disenfranchised black voter participation. These practices were in place from the end of the Reconstruction era (1876) until the the Voting Rights Act of 1965 legally removed and prohibited many of these obstacles; nonetheless, people of color continue to be disproportionally affected by voting restrictions to this day.

Recent decades

In 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the minimum voting age in most states from 21 to 18 years old, which greatly contributed to the six and eight percent reductions in voter turnout in the 1972 and 1974 elections respectively, highlighting a distinct correlation between age and voter participation. Overall turnout remained below sixty percent from the 1970s until the 2004 election, and around forty percent in the corresponding midterms. In recent elections, increased political involvement among younger voters and those from ethnic minority backgrounds has seen these numbers rise, with turnout in the 2018 midterms reaching fifty percent. This was the highest midterm turnout in over one hundred years, leading many in the media to predict that the 2020 election would see one of the largest and most diverse voter turnouts in the past century. However, most outlets are now predicting that voter turnout will be negatively impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, particularly among older voters who may be unwilling to participate due to the health risks involved. Conversely, increased political activism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd may counter some of this decline, particularly among younger voters and voters of color.

Turnout rates among the voting-eligible population in United States presidential and midterm elections from 1789 to 2018

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Source

Release date

2020

Region

United States

Survey time period

1789 to 2018

Supplementary notes

*Year of presidential election listed first.

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Statistics on "History of U.S. presidential elections 1789-2016"

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