Voter turnout in the United States has fluctuated dramatically over the past century. Throughout much of the 20th century, voter turnout was at or above 60 percent. In some decades, voter turnout reached 80 percent; in other decades, it fell below 50 percent.
While it’s impossible to know exactly why voter turnout changes, many experts believe that voters have a greater incentive to participate in elections when there is a greater emphasis on civic participation and when voting becomes much more convenient than it used to be.
These rationales could explain why voter turnout increased significantly from the 1960s through the 1990s. However, since the turn of the century, there have been marked declines in voter turnout.
This article looks at voting trends throughout American history and discusses what we can learn about declining voter participation by examining historical trends in different parts of the country and by considering alternative explanations for why people don’t vote.
Why are Americans less likely to vote now than they were in the past?
Although there are many theories, scientists have yet to find a definitive answer as to why voter turnout has dropped in the United States. One possible explanation is that the United States does not have a national culture of voting.
This may be due in part to the way that voting has been presented to Americans since the country’s founding. Voting was originally presented as a civic duty, an obligation to participate in one’s community. Americans were encouraged to vote because it was the right thing to do.
However, over the 20th century, the American government promoted voting as a right rather than a responsibility. As a result, many Americans, especially young people, may not perceive voting as an important right that they should actively defend.
Low voter turnout before 1965
Voter turnout was very high before 1965. In most years, almost everyone who was eligible to vote did so. In fact, in several years between the 1890s and the 1950s, more than 90 percent of Americans voted. Voter turnout climbed in the 1960s, but then began to fall in the 1970s.
By the time of the 2012 presidential election, voter turnout was at its lowest level in history. The percentage of the population that voted has continued to fall since the 1960s. In the 2012 presidential election, approximately 53 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, down from about 63 percent in 1960.
Voter turnout in the United States remains lower than in many other developed democracies; in fact, the United States is one of only a handful of countries that still allows citizens to vote only when they are 18 years old.
Factors that may contribute to declining voter turnout in the 21st century
There are several possible explanations for why voter turnout has steadily declined in recent decades. Some experts believe that Americans are more heavily focused on their jobs than they were in the past, and they, therefore, have less time to vote.
Others think that citizens of the 21st century have less interest in politics than citizens of the 20th century. Still, others hypothesize that the American electoral system itself has contributed to declining turnout.
More recently, an “anti-politics” environment has discouraged voting
The anti-politics environment of the last few decades may have made it less appealing for citizens to vote. In the 1960s and 1970s, participation in civic life was emphasized as a cultural value. This mainstream cultural value was a response to the rise of a culture of anti-intellectualism in the 1950s, which saw “anti-establishment” values promoted by people like TV personalities Howard Beale and G. Gordon Liddy.
Many experts have argued that the anti-politics environment of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s was characterized by an attitude of “anti-government” rather than an “anti-intellectual” sentiment. Some have suggested that it is less important to participate in elections than it once was, which could explain why voter turnout is now declining.
The legacy of Jim Crow and racial discrimination
Voting laws have historically been racist. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, most Southern states had strict “Black Codes,” which were laws that restricted the rights of African-American citizens. Southern states were required to get federal permission before enacting certain types of voting laws because of the history of racism in these states.
The Voting Rights Act was not perfect. It was weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013 and, as of 2016, has not been enforced effectively. However, it did make it easier for many citizens to vote for the first time. In addition, some experts have suggested that the large-scale migration of millions of Mexican citizens into the United States has made it easier for some immigrants to vote. This could be particularly helpful for Hispanic citizens, who, on average, are less likely to vote than non-Hispanic citizens are.
Voting restrictions may be contributing to declining voter participation
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited many types of voting restrictions that were allowed before it was enacted. Some experts have argued that the large-scale migration of millions of Mexican citizens into the United States has made it easier for some immigrants to vote. This could be particularly helpful for Hispanic citizens, who, on average, are less likely to vote than non-Hispanic citizens are.