Voter turnout in the United States presidential elections

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The broadest historical trends in voter turnout in the United States presidential elections have been determined by the gradual expansion of voting rights from the initial restriction to male property owners aged twenty-one or older in the early years of the country's independence, to all citizens aged eighteen or older in the mid-twentieth century. Voter turnout in the presidential elections has historically been better than the turnout for midterm elections.[1]

Age, education, and income[edit]

Rates of voting in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election by income
Rates in voting in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election by educational attainment

Age, income and educational attainment are significant factors affecting voter turnout. Educational attainment is perhaps the best predictor of voter turnout, and in the 2008 election those holding advanced degrees were three times more likely to vote than those with less than high school education. Income correlated well with likelihood of voting as well, although this may be because of a correlation between income and educational attainment, rather than a direct effect of income.

Age difference is associated with youth voter turnout. Berman and Johnson's (2000)[2] argument affirms that "age is an important factor in understanding voting blocs and differences" on various issues. Young people are typically "plagued" by political apathy and thus do not have strong political opinions (The Economist, 2014). As strong political opinions may be considered one of the reasons behind voting (Munsey, 2008), political apathy among young people is arguably a predictor for low voter turnout. Pomante and Schraufnagel's (2014) research demonstrated that potential young voters are more willing to commit to vote when they see pictures of younger candidates running for elections/office or voting for other candidates, surmising that young Americans are "voting at higher and similar rates to other Americans when there is a candidate under the age of 35 years running". As such, since most candidates running for office are pervasively over the age of 35 years (Struyk, 2017), youth may not be actively voting in these elections because of a lack of representation or visibility in the political process. "Only 30 per cent of millennials think it's 'essential' to live in a democracy, compared to 72 percent of those born before World War II" (Gershman, 2018). Considering that one of the critical tenets of liberal democracy is voting, the idea that millennials are denouncing the value of democracy is arguably an indicator of the loss of faith in the importance of voting. Thus, it can be surmised that those of younger ages may not be inclined to vote during elections.

Education is another factor considered to have a major impact on voter turnout rates. Burden (2009) investigated the relationship between formal education levels and voter turnout. He demonstrated the effect of rising enrollment in college education circa 1980s, which – as expected - did result in an increase in voter turnout. However, "this was not true for political knowledge" (Burden, 2009); a rise in education levels did not have any impact in identifying those with political knowledge (a signifier of civic engagement) until the 1980s election, when college education became a distinguishing factor in identifying civic participation. This article poses a multifaceted perspective on the effect of education levels on voter turnout. Based on this article, one may surmise that education has become a more powerful predictor of civic participation, discriminating more between voters and non-voters. However, this was not true for political knowledge; education levels were not a signifier of political knowledge. Gallego (2010) also contends that voter turnout tends to be higher in localities where voting mechanisms have been established and are easy to operate – i.e. voter turnout and participation tends to be high in instances where registration has been initiated by the state and the number of electoral parties is small. One may contend that ease of access – and not education level – may be an indicator of voting behavior. Presumably larger, more urban cities will have greater budgets/resources/infrastructure dedicated to elections, which is why youth may have higher turnout rates in those cities versus more rural areas. Though youth in larger (read: urban) cities tend to be more educated than those in rural areas (Marcus & Krupnick, 2017), perhaps there is an external variable (i.e. election infrastructure) at play. Smith and Tolbert's (2005) research reiterates that the presence of ballot initiatives and portals within a state have a positive effect on voter turnout. Another correlated finding in his study (Snyder, 2011) was that education is less important as a predictor of voter turnout in states than tend to spend more on education. Moreover, Snyder's (2011) research suggests that students are more likely to vote than non-students. It may be surmised that an increase of state investment in electoral infrastructure facilitates and education policy and programs results in increase voter turnout among youth.

Wealthier people tend to vote at higher rates. Harder and Krosnick (2008) contend that some of the reasons for this may be due to "differences in motivation or ability (sometimes both)" (Harder and Krosnick, 2008), or that less wealthy people have less energy, time, or resources to allot towards voting. Another potential reason may be that wealthier people believe that they have more at stake if they don't vote than those with less resources or income. Maslow's hierarchy of needs might also help explain this hypothesis from a psychological perspective. If those with low income are struggling to meet the basic survival needs of food, water, safety, etc., they will not be motivated enough to reach the final stages of "Esteem" or "Self-actualization" needs (Maslow, 1943) – which consist of the desire for dignity, respect, prestige and realizing personal potential, respectively.

Women's suffrage and gender gap[edit]

There was no systematic collection of voter turnout data by gender at a national level before 1964, but smaller local studies indicate a low turnout among female voters in the years following Women's suffrage in the United States. For example, a 1924 study of voting turnout in Chicago found that "female Chicagoans were far less likely to have visited the polls on Election Day than were men in both the 1920 presidential election (46% vs. 75%) and the 1923 mayoral contest (35% vs. 63%)."[3] The study compared reasons given by male and female non-voters, and found that female non-voters were more likely to cite general indifference to politics and ignorance or timidity regarding elections than male non-voters, and that female voters were less likely to cite fear of loss of business or wages. Most significantly, however, 11% of female non-voters in the survey cited a "Disbelief in woman's voting" as the reason they did not vote.

The graph of voter turnout percentages shows a dramatic decline in turnout over the first two decades of the twentieth century, ending in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granted women the right to vote across the United States. But in the preceding decades, several states had passed laws supporting women's suffrage. Women were granted the right to vote in Wyoming in 1869, before the territory had become a full state in the union. In 1889, when the Wyoming constitution was drafted in preparation for statehood, it included women's suffrage. Thus Wyoming was also the first full state to grant women the right to vote. In 1893, Colorado was the first state to amend an existing constitution in order to grant women the right to vote, and several other states followed, including Utah and Idaho in 1896, Washington State in 1910, California in 1911, Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona in 1912, Alaska and Illinois in 1913, Montana and Nevada in 1914, New York in 1917; Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma in 1918. Each of these suffrage laws expanded the body of eligible voters, and because women were less likely to vote than men, each of these expansions created a decline in voter turnout rates, culminating with the extremely low turnouts in the 1920 and 1924 elections after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Voter turnout by sex and age for the 2008 US Presidential Election.

This voting gender gap waned throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, and in recent decades has completely reversed, with a higher proportion of women voting than men in each of the last nine presidential elections[when?]. The Center for American Women and Politics summarizes how this trend can be measured differently both in terms of proportion of voters to non-voters, and in terms of the bulk number of votes cast. "In every presidential election since 1980, the proportion of eligible female adults who voted has exceeded the proportion of eligible male adults who voted [...]. In all presidential elections prior to 1980, the voter turnout rate for women was lower than the rate for men. The number of female voters has exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election since 1964..."[4] This gender gap has been a determining factor in several recent presidential elections, as women have been consistently about 15% more likely to support the candidate of the Democratic Party than the Republican candidate in each election since 1996.[5]

Race, ethnicity, and voter turnout[edit]

Voter turnout in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election by race/ethnicity.

The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gave African American men the right to vote. While this historic expansion of rights resulted in significant increases in the eligible voting population, and may have contributed to the increases in the proportion of votes cast for president as a percentage of the total population during the 1870s, there does not seem to have been a significant long-term increase in the percentage of eligible voters who turn out for the poll. The disenfranchisement of most African Americans and many poor whites in the South during the years 1890-1910 likely contributed to the decline in overall voter turnout percentages during those years visible in the chart at the top of the article. Ethnicity has had an effect on voter turnout in recent years as well, with data from recent elections such as 2008 showing much lower turnout among people identifying as Hispanic or Asian ethnicity than other voters (see chart to the right).

Youth voting turnout[edit]

Recent decades have seen increasing concern over the fact that youth voting turnout is consistently lower than turnout among older generations. Several programs to increase the rates of voting among young people—such as MTV's "Rock the Vote" (founded in 1990) and the "Vote or Die" initiative (starting in 2012)—may have marginally increased turnouts of those between the ages of 18 and 25 to vote. However, the Stanford Social Innovation Review found no evidence of a decline in youth voter turnout. In fact, they argue that "Millennials are turning out at similar rates to the previous two generations when they face their first elections."[6]

Other eligibility factors[edit]

Another factor influencing statistics on voter turnout is the percentage of the country's voting-age population who are ineligible to vote due to non-citizen status or prior felony convictions. In a 2001 article in the American Political Science Review, Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin argued, that at least in the United States, voter turnout since 1972 has not actually declined when calculated for those eligible to vote, what they term the voting-eligible population.[7] In 1972, noncitizens and ineligible felons (depending on state law) constituted about 2% of the voting-age population. By 2004, ineligible voters constituted nearly 10%.[citation needed] Ineligible voters are not evenly distributed across the country – 20% of California's voting-age population is ineligible to vote – which confounds comparisons of states.[citation needed]

Turnout statistics[edit]

U.S. presidential election popular vote totals as a percentage of the total U.S. population. Note the surge in 1828 (extension of suffrage to non-property-owning white men), the drop from 1890–1910 (when Southern states disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites), and another surge in 1920 (extension of suffrage to women). Note also that this chart represents the number of votes cast as a percentage of total population, and does not compare either of those quantities with the percentage of the population that was eligible to vote.
Election Voting Age Population (VAP)[clarification needed][8] Turnout[clarification needed][8] % Turnout of VAP[8][9]
1828 57.6%
1832 55.4%
1836 57.8%
1840 80.2%
1844 78.9%
1848 72.7%
1852 69.6%
1856 78.9%
1860 81.2%
1864 73.8%
1868 78.1%
1872 71.3%
1876 81.8%
1880 79.4%
1884 77.5%
1888 79.3%
1892 74.7%
1896 79.3%
1900 73.2%
1904 65.2%
1908 65.4%
1912 58.8%
1916 61.6%
1920 49.2%
1924 48.9%
1928 56.9%
1932 75,768,000 39,817,000 52.6%
1936 80,174,000 45,647,000 56.9%
1940 84,728,000 49,815,000 58.8%
1944 85,654,000 48,026,000 56.1%
1948 95,573,000 48,834,000 51.1%
1952 99,929,000 61,552,000 61.6%
1956 104,515,000 62,027,000 59.3%
1960 109,672,000 68,836,000 62.8%
1964 114,090,000 70,098,000 61.4%
1968 120,285,000 73,027,000 60.7%
1972 140,777,000 77,625,000 55.1%
1976 152,308,000 81,603,000 53.6%
1980 163,945,000 86,497,000 52.8%
1984 173,995,000 92,655,000 53.3%
1988 181,956,000 91,587,000 50.3%
1992 189,493,000 104,600,000 55.2%
1996 196,789,000 96,390,000 49.0%
2000 209,787,000 105,594,000 50.3%
2004 219,553,000 122,349,000 55.7%
2008 229,945,000 131,407,000 58.2%
2012 235,248,000 129,235,000 54.9%
2016 250,056,000 (estimated)[10] 138,847,000 (estimated)[10] 55.5% (estimated)[10]

Note: The Bipartisan Policy Center has stated that turnout for 2012 was 57.5 percent of the eligible voters, which they claim was a decline from 2008. They estimate that as a percent of eligible voters, turn out was: 2000, 54.2%; in 2004 60.4%; 2008 62.3%; and 2012 57.5%.[11]

Later analysis by the University of California, Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project found that there were 235,248,000 people of voting age in the United States in the 2012 election, resulting in 2012 voting age population (VAP) turnout of 54.9%.[12] The total increase in VAP between 2008 and 2012 (5,300,000) was the smallest increase since 1964, bucking the modern average of 9,000,000–13,000,000 per cycle.

See also[edit]

Berman, D. and Johnson, R. (2000). Age, ambition, and the local charter: a study in voting behavior. The Social Science Journal, 37(1), pp.19-26.

Burden, B. (2009). The dynamic effects of education on voter turnout. Electoral Studies, 28(4), 540-549. doi: 10.1016/j.electstud.2009.05.027

Gallego, A. (2010). Understanding unequal turnout: Education and voting in comparative perspective. Electoral Studies, 29(2), pp.239-248.

Gershman, C. (2018). Democracy and Democracies in Crisis. Retrieved from

Harder, J. and Krosnick, J. (2008). Why Do People Vote? A Psychological Analysis of the Causes of Voter Turnout. Journal of Social Issues, 64(3), pp.525-549.

Marcus, J., & Krupnick, M. (2017). The Rural Higher-Education Crisis. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), pp.370-396.

Munsey, C. (2008). Why do we vote ?. American Psychological Association.

Pomante, M., & Schraufnagel, S. (2014). Candidate Age and Youth Voter Turnout. American Politics Research, 43(3), 479-503. doi: 10.1177/1532673x14554829

Snyder, R. (2011). The impact of age, education, political knowledge and political context on voter turnout. UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, And Capstones.

Struyk, R. (2017). The Democratic Party has an age problem. CNN. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2018].

The Economist (2014). Why young people don’t vote. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2018].

Tolbert, C., & Smith, D. (2005). The Educative Effects of Ballot Initiatives on Voter Turnout. American Politics Research, 33(2), 283-309. doi: 10.1177/1532673x04271904


  1. ^ New York Times Editorial Board (2014-11-11). "Opinion | The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 Years". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  2. ^ berman. "Age, ambition, and the local charter: a study in voting behavior".
  3. ^ Allen, Jodie T. (2009-03-18). "Reluctant Suffragettes: When Women Questioned Their Right to Vote". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  4. ^ "Gender Differences in Voter Turnout" (PDF). Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. 2017-07-20. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  5. ^ Waldman, Paul (2016-03-17). "Opinion | Why the 2016 election may produce the largest gender gap in history". Washington Post. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  6. ^ Kiesa, Abby; Levine, Peter (2016-03-21). "Do We Actually Want Higher Youth Voter Turnout?". Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  7. ^ McDonald, Michael P.; Popkin, Samuel L. (December 2001). "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter". The American Political Science Review. 95 (4): 963–974. JSTOR 3117725.
  8. ^ a b c Between 1932 and 2008: "Table 397. Participation in Elections for President and U.S. Representatives: 1932 to 2010" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. U.S. Census Bureau.
  9. ^ Between 1828-1928: "Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828 - 2008". The American Presidency Project. UC Santa Barbara. Retrieved 2012-11-09.
  10. ^ a b c "2016g - United States Elections Project".
  11. ^ "2012 Election Turnout Dips Below 2008 and 2004 Levels: Number Of Eligible Voters Increases By Eight Million, Five Million Fewer Votes Cast" (PDF). Bipartisan Policy Center. 2012-11-08. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  12. ^ "Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections". UC Santa Barbara American Presidency Project. Retrieved 2018-01-29.