In this year's presidential election, the share of eligible Americans who actually voted--66.7%--was higher than in any year since 1900. This follows the off-year election of 2018 in which the share was the highest in 104 years. (Washington Post)
NH: Love or hate Donald Trump, you have to concede this much: He has successfully pulled this nation out of its political apathy. Ever since the 1970s, civic leaders and good-government pundits have been decrying low voter participation rates in America. Why don't more of us care about our country's leadership?
Well, that problem has now been solved.
In 2018, rising tempers over Trump's presidency and the direction of America triggered the initial record surge in voter participation, with the eligible voter share rising to 50.0%. That was the highest share for an off-year election since 1914, two years after Woodrow Wilson entered the White House. (See "The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas" and an update "More Evidence of the 2018 Midterm Turnout Boom.")
Now in 2020, it appears, the turnout jumped again. In terms of absolute numbers, 81 million Americans cast a vote. That is 17% more than the number in 2008 (when Barack Obama beat John McCain), which was already heralded in the media as a record turnout year.
As a share of eligible voters, the turnout rose to 66.7%. That's higher than any of the elections won by FDR or Eisenhower or LBJ or Nixon. In fact, it's the highest in any presidential election since 1900, when hard-money Republican William McKinley faced off for the second time against William Jennings Bryan, the fiery "Great Commoner" from the prairies.
All that happened 120 years ago, before autos and airplanes and radios, when city streets still teemed with horses and kings and queens still ruled Europe.
Regionally, the turnout surge happened pretty much everywhere. In all but 8 states, the 2020 voting rate was the highest since 1980. (State-level data aren't available before 1980.)
Despite fears about contracting Covid-19 and despite the difficulties of navigating new-fangled state mail-in systems, a record share of Americans were determined to be counted. This is consistent with the findings of many pre-election surveys. Pew reported in August that a record share of Americans were saying "it really matters who wins the presidency"--83% in 2020 versus only 50% in 2000.
These voting rate numbers are prepared in real-time by the United States Election Project (USEP), a nonprofit team of academics headed by Michael McDonald at the University of Florida. They are different from the "official" voter-participation rates calculated by the Census Bureau in two respects.
First, they are published much sooner. The Census rates for the 2020 election won't be published until at least a year from now. Second, they are in many ways more meaningful. On the basis of its own biennial CPS surveys, the Census simply tells us what share of all Americans over age 18 are registered to vote and what share actually did vote in the last election. The USEP tells us something different: How many Americans voted each year as a share of all Americans eligible to vote.
This eligibility criterion is important. In 1920, for example, women could vote for the first time, which hugely expanded the number of eligible voters. Since 1972, adults ages 18-20 could vote, which did the same. On the other hand, recent decades have seen a growing number of felons stripped of their right to vote in most states, which has shrunk the eligible pool. So the USEP gives us a consistent behavioral measure with which we can compare willingness to vote across decades.
When we look back over the full scope of U.S. history (see again our second chart above), we notice some sweeping shifts over time.
In the early republic, voting rates were relatively modest--partly because the federal government didn't do much and partly because many state legislatures still chose presidential electors with no voter participation.
That changed dramatically in the era of Jacksonian Democracy. In 1828, after Andrew Jackson blamed John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay for "stealing" the last election, rising tempers drove over 50% of all eligible voters to the polls for the first time.
Three terms later, following an economic crash that wrecked the reputation of his protegé, Martin van Buren, the Whigs emulated the Democrats' populism. In 1840, they ran William Henry Harrison and John Tyler ("Tippecanoe and Tyler too") as the "log cabin and hard cider" candidates.
That campaign pushed the voting rate all the way up to an amazing 80%. And yes, Harrison won... though he fell ill and died just four weeks after his inauguration.
Voting rates remained at these high levels for the next sixty years. The presidential voting rate hit its all-time peak in 1876 (at 82.6%), which turned out to be the contested election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden.
So much fraud was charged and no doubt committed in that election that a special congressional task force was empowered to sort out the results. The outcome was a brokered compromise: The Republican (Hayes) would become the next president, but the Democrats got a promise that the Republicans would terminate Reconstruction and remove federal troops from the former Confederate states. The upshot, for the next 80 years, was a solidly Democratic and Jim Crow South.
Voting rates began to slide steeply after 1900. What happened? The prevailing theory is that the growing progressive movement changed politics in a way that discouraged participation. This seems ironic, since progressives so often stressed the importance of arousing the "educated public" to take action.
But there was another side to the progressives--and this was their goal of making politics impersonal and anonymous and rule-bound. The ballot was made "secret." Liquor was banned. Influence-peddling was made illegal. All the important choices were to be made by dispassionate experts or incorruptible managers--professorial types like Woodrow Wilson.
The result? Politics just wasn't fun any more. In Victorian America, elections were festive and often raucous community events where people went to see and be seen. Voters often wore their partisan emblems. They would take ballots preprinted by their own parties and insert them, publicly, into large canisters--sometimes made out of glass to reassure everyone that there was no "stuffing" going on.
To be sure, no one today wants to go back to a time before the secret ballot and anti-bribery laws. All the same, it sure doesn't help that most Americans have come to regard voting with all the excitement of a trip to the dentist.
Earlier Americans understood, better than we moderns, that politics needs to be a team sport in order to engage most people. When things become really important, people join teams in order to get them done. Alternatively, when people join teams, things that matter to the team become more important to people. Either way, community bonding is the lifeblood of civic participation.
Since the rise of the progressives, Americans have witnessed a couple of resurgent decades of high voting rates. One was the New Deal 1930s. Another was the American High 1950s. Today in 2021 we seem to be entering another such decade. Once again, politics is not just about what you think. It's also about which community you belong to.
While many are alarmed by the growing us-or-them partisanship of politics--and yes, it is alarming, especially when it threatens to veer into organized violence--let's not lose sight of the positive side.
A democracy that is not engaged is incapable of making big collective choices. And, messy as it may seem, it's partisanship that generates engagement and that pushes history forward.
* * *
ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.