How Voter Turnout Influences Election Results
The United States has a non-compulsory voting system at every level meaning voter turnout has a major impact on election results. Historically US voter turnout at presidential elections is low comparatively to other Western democracies. Part of this can be attributed to the voluntary nature of voting. Part can also be attributed to systemic attempts to reduce turnout for political gain.
Voter turnout in the United States has dropped significantly throughout its history. From 1840 through to 1900, voter turnout never dipped below 69.6%. Three times turnout topped 80% including the high watermark of 1876, when 81.8% of the voting age population voted.
By 1920 though, turnout had dropped to 49.6% and even further in 1924 to 48.9%. Voter turnout did not top 60% again until 1952. Over the last century, it is a turnout that has been reached just four times. It has dipped below 50% three times over that period and just once since 1924, in 1996 when Bill Clinton swept to a second term.
Since the low watermark of 1996, turnout has topped 50% in the five elections including 54.9% in the last four. In 2008, turnout was 57.1%, the highest turnout since 1968.
By the mid-1820s, nearly all white men aged 21 or older were eligible to vote, a marked change from the early years of the United States where only property owners could vote. A number of states had tax-paying qualifications to vote well into the 1860s.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment was passed that provided universal suffrage for all African American men.
Women were able to vote in a presidential election for the first time in 1920. Men historically voted in far greater numbers than women but in the last nine presidential elections women have voted at a higher rate than men.
Influences on Turnout
There are many influences on voter turnout but those that are regarded as the most significant are gender, race/ethnicity, age, education, and urban/rural locale.
- Gender: As noted above, women vote at higher rates than men across the last nine elections.
- Race/Ethnicity: Anglo-Americans vote at notably higher rates than African Americans and Hispanic US citizens.
- Age: Older people vote at significantly higher rates than younger people.
- Education: Those with higher education vote at higher rates than those with lower education levels.
- Location: Rural populations are overrepresented when it comes to voting relative to urban-dwellers.
When analysing the key influences that impact turnout, the status quo notably favours the Republican Party with Anglo-American voters, older voters and rural voters key demographics for the GOP.
As such, voter suppression has long been part of American democracy and has primarily been a tactic of the conservative side of politics.
Many methods have been used as an attempt by conservative incumbents to maintain their grip on power. Poll taxes in the post-Reconstruction South were used to prevent African Americans and low-income earners from voting. Literacy tests were used for similar purposes. Many of these continued well into the 20th century.
More modern tactics used to suppress the vote include complex and elongated voter registration processes, voter roll purging, restrictions on absentee and early voting, voting procedure disinformation and onerous identification requirements.
Voter suppression, or attempts at same, continue in 2020. The Trump Administration has undertaken several lawsuits in an attempt to undermine postal voting, absentee and early voting. The most populous county in Texas has just one single drive-in voting booth for early voting.
What to Expect in 2020
All indicators suggest that voter turnout will rise significantly in 2020 and could top 60% for the first time in over a half-century.
Early turnout so far is up nearly 500%. Part of this is no doubt a result of Covid-19 that has some potential voters reluctant to attend a polling booth. Much though has not doubt been driven by an increasingly polarised electorate. Texas and Georgia have both reported record early voting figures – and are two states that have some of the most onerous regulations. Ohio has had double the record for postal voting requests.
The 2018 midterm elections resulted in the highest turnout in a century after four years earlier recording the lowest turnout in a century showing the polarisation Trump brings is driving citizens to the polls.
One notable reason for what is expected to be a significant increase in voter turnout is the concerted efforts to drive voting, particularly among African American communities. One example of this is the NBA’s clear effort to focus on promoting voting from player discussions to advertising. This voter turnout drive is also expected to result in a major rise among young voters.
Overall, voter turnout is sure to rise and could reach record levels with some forecasting as many as 150 million Americans could vote, providing a voter turnout as high as any year since World War I.
US Elections 2020
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