On voting, Americans tend to swing widely between the hyperbole of having an inviolable moral obligation to vote in every single election for every single position, to believing that if elections could really change anything, “they’d make them illegal.”
United States voter turnout has generally increased from “zero” to a tiny percentage of the population to rising numbers gained through African-American and Women’s suffrage and still upward from there. But there have also been significant dips, and it’s probably harder to explain those. The National Election Project web site also points out that “historical turnout rates are calculated from data of dubious accuracy and are at times incomplete . . .” both for reasons of irretrievability of old data or historical voter disenfranchisement. So there’s a lot we don’t know about voter turnout, but we can grab a few ideas from a glance at the beginning, middle, and most recent highlights.
The earliest elections are good reminders that getting people to come out and vote is not what many of the founders had in mind. For them, the American experiment was really an administrative exercise, with the 1789 elections like a practice run. Washington’s election was a foregone conclusion. Several of the states held no popular vote. Several had no ballots. More than a practice run, even, it was a controlled electoral experiment with the people being barely an afterthought. Only six states held any form of the popular vote. Less than 1.8% of the people voted. Property requirements kept the number undemocratically low.
From 1868 to 1888, turnout was very high, consistently over 60 percent, and not just due to Emancipation. In a thoughtful column for Reuters in 2014, Donald P. Green discusses the wild atmosphere of public politics, including elections—which were not secret. Instead, “men came to deposit their party’s color-coded ballots in front of their neighbors.” And there were lots and lots of festive events—the other kind of “political party.” Green doesn’t think we should necessarily reverse course away from secret ballots, but he points out the data demonstrating that “people vote when encouraged by others to do so” and this includes “community gatherings near polling places.” It’s about “making civic participation an attractive social activity,” and I think that’s well-put.
Voter turnout was at a 20-year low in 2016. That’s partly (but by no means wholly or maybe even mostly) to efforts by paid, purposive messaging convincing people not to vote, a type of ad Facebook now says it will not allow on its platform. Low turnout is also exacerbated by voter suppression. But efforts to increase voter turnout can and should be treated as remedies to suppression since many voters who find themselves taken off rolls can take proactive steps (especially if given the resources) to get back on. Like Green, I am not in favor of bringing back the public tabulation spectacle of the late 1800s, but maybe some raucous parties would get more people out.
We may not need those parties (although that’s no reason not to have them). William Galston of Brookings is one of many scholars to point out that voter turnout radically increased for the midterm elections of 2018 and special elections of 2019, and is predicted to spike in 2020, overwhelming our election infrastructure—the topic for another post, perhaps. Just one statistic gives us a snapshot of what we’re in store for: “In 2015, 1.36 million votes were cast in the Virginia state Senate elections. [In 2019] the total rose to 2.27 million, an increase of 66%.”