The 2020 election in the United States produced the highest voter turnout rate in over 100 years. However, when looking at the history of US voter turnout in every historical presidential election, even the 2020 election is dwarfed.
Measuring voter turnout is more difficult than one might imagine. Scholars debate which metric is even best to utilize when making this analysis.
One method is taking the percentage of votes cast by voting-age population (VAP). This looks at how many total people voted in an election that were within the age limits of an entire population residing within the nation.
In comparison to other nations with stable democracies, voter turnout in the US is relatively low. In terms of votes cast by VAP, the US ranked 31st out of 49 for nations where data was available.1
Though this metric can be useful, it’s also limiting. For example, measuring voter turnout by VAP includes people that are ineligible to vote.
Non-citizens such as undocumented immigrants, felons (in some states), and mentally incapacitated individuals are not allowed to vote, though they are counted in VAP. In addition, citizens and military personnel living overseas are not counted in VAP as they do not reside in the US, despite the ability to vote.
Given those limiting factors, many scholars believe measuring votes cast by voting-eligible population (VEP), which takes into account those variations, is the best way to measure voter turnout.
VEP data for historical US elections is difficult to estimate in some cases, though the United States Election Project generally has the most accurate information available.
The United States has a long, ever-changing history in regards to voting rights and thus voter turnout. Laws and eligibility change frequently, which has led to a wide array of voter turnout through the centuries.
The History of Voter Turnout in the US
The history of voter turnout in the US can be split into four distinct time periods:
- 1789-1840 – Featured low turnout initially, voting rights eventually extended to nearly all white men.
- 1840-1900 – Contentious political environment before, during, and after Civil War led to high stakes elections. African-American men extended voting rights.
- 1900-1968 – Decrease in partisanship as nation became more unified in political direction, voting rights extended to all women.
- 1968-present – Voting rights extended to 18-21 years old citizens, turnout increases in 2000s following further partisan divide.
Article I Section 4 of the US Constitution left the issue of voter eligibility to the states.
“The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”
The original 13 states had varying requirements that generally excluded all from voting other than white men who were landowners. Early on some states allowed free black men to vote, while others allowed landowning women to vote as well.
Gradually these states and new states added to the Union removed the property ownership requirements and allowed all white men to vote. In tandem, free black men and women generally lost their right to vote through the early part of the 19th century.
Voter turnout in these earliest presidential elections was historically low. Even when measured by VEP, which excludes those who weren’t eligible to vote at the time, these elections featured the lowest voter turnout in history.
The cause of the low turnouts is likely due to a variety of factors. First, political engagement was low in these early years. Many were not educated nor interested in the politics of the nation as a whole, and communication barriers prevented widespread interest.
In addition, political parties were in their infancy. As the parties became more developed they figured out ways to spur engagement and bring people to the polls.
The first election that featured higher than 50% voter turnout was the contentious election of 1828 at 57%. The subsequent Jacksonian Era culminated in the widespread democratization of voting rights for white males and by the 1840 election, voter turnout had increased to 80%.
The period of 1840-1900 featured a sustained voter turnout of above 70%. The highest voter turnout ever for a presidential election occurred in this period during the highly-contested 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden with nearly 83% of eligible voters casting a ballot.
This era of comparatively high voter turnout is largely attributed to the successful organization and implementation of political parties.
It was also a period in which the country was extremely divided and featured extreme partisan views and beliefs.
The issue of slavery before the Civil War brought out voters by the masses. In the aftermath of the war, the question of how to rebuild and unite the nation brought hordes of voters to the polls as well.
The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 gave African-American men the right to vote. This marginalized group was eager to vote and make their voices heard for the first time.
A huge reason for the high voter turnout of the period was the high participation rate among young people. Political parties of the time were able to successfully capture the interest of potential younger voters through the organization of youth political clubs.2
The mid to late 19th century was a time of rapid change in the United States. The nation saw industrialization, population shifts from rural to urban areas, and new cultural norms.
Young people would bear the brunt of these changes. New norms meant adolescents had to navigate their own way through social interactions like courtship and employment with little in the way of precedent to learn from.
The political youth clubs turned out to be a perfect social outlet and created a sense of pride and belonging among young voters. Young “virgin voters” eagerly looked forward to casting their first ballot for their beloved party and would actively recruit for and represent the party in their daily lives.
By 1900 the youth-driven high voter turnout all but vanished. Youth participation in these political clubs dwindled as other options and avenues for social outlets arose.
Young people had many more options for community involvement in the early 20th century. Schools, sports, unions, and other avenues emerged to provide entertainment for young Americans.
The period of 1900-1920 featured a sharp drop in voter participation. While young people voting less frequently was a part of this, the hyper-partisan era was put on a brief pause.
The early 20th century saw the US emerge as an imperialist power. While there was some disagreement over how to handle this new fact, a majority agreed on the moral authority and responsibility of the United States in regards to its foreign relations.
In essence, the competing directions of the political parties at the time were not highly distinct, which decreased the interest of voters and thus lowered turnout. Efforts to reduce fraud and corruption also resulted in more stringent laws around voting.3
In addition, racist policies such as the Jim Crow laws like poll taxes and literacy tests were highly effective at marginalizing people of color and poor uneducated citizens. Even though these citizens were eligible to vote, they did not vote as they could not pay the fees or pass the tests.
The Nineteenth Amendment opened the vote to all women in 1920. Few took advantage of that right initially, which led to the large drop in voter turnout in the 1920 election.
The era of the Great Depression and World War II led to increased voter turnout, though nowhere near the highs of the late 19th century. The highly partisan views of how to lead the country through the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history likely sparked this rise.
The high watermark for the mid-twentieth century came from 1960-1968 with voter turnout in the 62-64% range before experiencing another drop.
The drop in 1972 was precipitated by yet another change in the voting eligibility of Americans. The Twenty-sixth Amendment was ratified in 1971 which gave citizens aged 18-21 the right to vote.
Similar to when women gained the right to vote in 1920, many of these new voters did not turn out to the polls immediately. After this change, voter turnout would remain relatively low, averaging in the mid-50% range for the remainder of the century.
With a booming economy and relatively unified Cold War vision, partisan politics became less important to the average voter. Others believe that the average voter became disillusioned and disgruntled with the political process and chose not to participate.
In this period data collection and tracking of voter trends and demographics became much more reliable. Interesting trends emerged showcasing the demographics behind voter turnout.
Two clear trends emerged. The relative levels of wealth and education are directly correlated with voter turnout.
People who are more wealthy are more likely to vote, while poorer people are less likely to vote. In tandem, those with higher levels of education and steady employment are more likely to vote than those with lower levels of education and/or those that are unemployed or economically distressed.4
Increasing the voter turnout of the demographics that are less likely to vote can be key to winning an election.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama, the first ever African-American president, marked the highest voter turnout since the 1960s at 62%. The historic event and the Obama campaign’s ability to mobilize young voters (a typically low turnout demographic) was a likely cause behind the increased turnout figures.
This mark would eventually be eclipsed in the 2020 US election. The voter turnout in 2020 was the highest it’s been since the election of 1900.
US Voter Turnout in 2020
The 2020 election was one of the most unique in the nation’s history. In the middle of a global pandemic, many states adjusted voting procedures to allow voters to exercise their constitutional right while also limiting the spread of the virus.
Additional measures enacted in 2020 included expanded access to mail-in voting, extended voter registration deadlines, and increased usage of “drop boxes” to collect ballots, among many other initiatives aimed to increase access to voting. The easier access may have allowed more voters to cast their ballots.
In addition, the handling of the global pandemic, racial inequality/injustice, and the inflammatory presidency of the 2020 incumbent contributed to an intense partisan divide among voters.
As was the case in the period of 1840-1900, voters displayed more partisan tendencies due to the distinct differences in the vision and direction of the candidates and political parties.
This clear split in the future direction of the nation as well as economic uncertainties and concern over the nation’s moral climate also contributed greatly to voter turnout in the 2020 US presidential election.
Virtually all demographic groups saw increases in voter turnout in 2020. In particular, younger voters aged 18-29 and 30-44 saw particularly large increases in turnout over the 2016 election.
As with the elections of the late 19th century, the increase in political mobility of young voters can be essential to the overall voter turnout of an election.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
2) GRINSPAN, JON. The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. University of North Carolina Press, 2016. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469627359_grinspan.
3) Nardulli, Peter F., et al. “Voter Turnout in U. S. Presidential Elections: An Historical View and Some Speculation.” PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 29, no. 3, 1996, pp. 480–90. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/420828.
4) Rosenstone, Steven J. “Economic Adversity and Voter Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 26, no. 1, 1982, pp. 25–46. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2110837.