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The Vanishing Voter
Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty
Written by Thomas E. Patterson

The Vanishing Voter
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Category: Political Science - Civics & Citizenship; Political Science - Political Process - Campaigns & Elections; History - United States - 21St Century
Imprint: Vintage
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: September 2003
Price: $14.95
Can. Price: $21.00
ISBN: 978-0-375-71379-8 (0-375-71379-4)
Pages: 288


Chapter One: The Incredible Shrinking Electorate

I've lost interest in voting. --twenty-six-year-old Pennsylvania voter

I just don't vote. --twenty-five-year-old North Carolina resident

I don't have any time, and I'm not interested anyway. --forty-year-old Washington resident

I don't see any reason to vote. --thirty-year-old Wisconsin resident

Sam Roberts, a Miami resident, was kicking himself. A Gore supporter, he had not voted in the 2000 presidential election. "I should have voted," Roberts told a reporter. "Had planned to but didn't get around to it. Dumb."

With the outcome of the 2000 election hanging by the thread of a few hundred votes in Florida, citizen regret was widespread. Nearly half of adult Americans had not voted, and a CNN poll indicated most of them wished they had.

Even if more people go to the polls in the next election, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, could have that effect, the long-term prospects are anything but bright. The voting rate has fallen in nearly every presidential election for four decades. An economic recession and Ross Perot's spirited third-party bid sparked a healthy 5 percent increase in 1992, but turnout in 1996 plunged to 49 percent, the first time since the 1920s that it had slipped below 50 percent.

Many expected turnout to rise in 2000. The Clinton-Dole race four years earlier was one-sided from the start. The contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, however, looked to be the tightest since 1960, when John F. Kennedy won by the slim margin of 100,000 votes. "Close elections tend to drive up voter interest," said CNN's political analyst Bill Schneider.

Turnout did rise, but only slightly: a mere 51 percent of U.S. adults voted in 2000.

That was a far cry from the 63 percent turnout for the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, which became the benchmark for evaluating participation in subsequent elections. In every presidential election for the next twenty years, turnout fell. It rose by 1 percentage point in 1984, but then dropped 3 points in 1988. Analysts viewed the trend with alarm, but the warning bells really sounded in 1996, when more Americans stayed home than went to the polls on Election Day. In 1960, 68.8 million adults voted and 40.8 million did not. In 1996, 96.3 million came out and 100.2 million passed.

The turnout trend in the midterm congressional elections has been no less alarming. The voting rate was nearly 50 percent on average in the 1960s, barely stayed above 40 percent in the 1970s, and has averaged 37 percent since then. After a recent midterm vote the cartoonist Rigby showed an election clerk eagerly asking a stray cat that had wandered into a polling place, "Are you registered?"

The period from 1960 to 2000 marks the longest ebb in turnout in the nation's history. If in 2000, as in 1960, 63 percent of the electorate had participated, nearly 25 million more people would have voted. If that many queued up at a polling booth in New York City, the line would stretch all the way to Los Angeles and back, twice over.

Fewer voters are not the only sign that Americans are less interested in political campaigns. Since 1960, participation has declined in virtually every area of election activity, from the volunteers who work on campaigns to the viewers who watch televised debates. The United States had 100 million fewer people in 1960 than it did in 2000 but, even so, more viewers tuned to the October presidential debates in 1960 than did so in 2000.

Few today pay even token tribute to presidential elections. In 1974, Congress established a fund to underwrite candidates' campaigns, financed by a checkoff box on personal income tax returns that allowed citizens to assign $1 (later raised to $3) of their tax liability to the fund. Initially, one in three taxpayers checked the box. By the late 1980s, only one in five marked it. Now, only one in eight does so.

What could possibly explain such trends? Why are citizens drawing back from election politics? Why is the voter vanishing?

American politics has many strange aspects, but few so mysterious as the decline in electoral participation. Two decades ago, the political scientist Richard Brody observed that the declining rate was at odds with existing theories about voting behavior.

One such theory held that rising education levels would spawn higher participation. In 1960, college-educated Americans were 50 percent more likely to vote than those who had not finished high school. With college graduates increasing steadily in number, the future of voting in America looked bright. "Education not only tends to imbue persons with a sense of citizen duty, it also propels them into political activity," the political scientist V. O. Key wrote. In 1960, half of the adult population had not finished high school and fewer than 10 percent had graduated from college. Today, 25 percent hold a college degree and another 25 percent have attended college. Yet, turnout has declined.

The voting rate of African Americans deepens the mystery. In 1960, only 29 percent of southern blacks were registered to vote. An imposing array of barriers--poll taxes, rigged literacy tests, and courthouse intimidation--kept them from registering. Jim Crow laws ruled southern politics, as did segregationist appeals. Ross Barnett was elected Mississippi's governor in 1959 to the tune of a race-baiting song:

Roll with Ross, roll with Ross, he's his own boss. For segregation, one hundred percent. He's not a moderate like some of the gents. He'll fight integration with forceful intent.

Only 22,000 of Mississippi's 450,000 blacks--a mere 5 percent--were registered to vote. North Carolina had the South's highest level of black registration but, even there, only 38 percent were enrolled.

The force of the civil rights movement swept the registration barriers aside. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, prohibits states from requiring citizens to pay "any poll tax or other tax" before they can vote in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 empowered the U.S. attorney general to send federal examiners to supervise registration in the seven southern states where literacy tests had been imposed and where fewer than 50 percent of eligible adults were registered. Within half a year, black registration in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina rose by 40 percent. The Voting Rights Act also suspended the use of literacy tests, which were banned completely five years later. President Lyndon Johnson told southern officials not to resist electoral change: "To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities, who want to and seek to maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is simple: open your polling places to all your people."

Many southern blacks saw their names on polling lists for the first time in their lives. African-American registration rose to 43 percent in 1964 and to more than 60 percent by 1970. In the process, black turnout in the region doubled. Southern whites reacted by also voting in larger numbers, mostly for racial conservatives. In 1960, participation in the South was 30 percentage points below that of the rest of the country. Today, it is less than 5 points lower. Nationally, the voting rate of African Americans is now nearly the same as that of whites. Why, then, has the overall rate declined?

The women's vote adds to the mystery. Although women gained the right to vote in 1920, they were slow to exercise it. Even as late as 1960, turnout among women was nearly 10 percentage points below that of men. American society was changing, however. The tradition-minded women born before suffrage were giving way to generations of women who never doubted that the vote belonged to them as much as it did to men. Today, women vote at the same rate as men. But the overall rate has fallen.

The relaxation of registration laws in recent years also provides reason to think that the turnout rate should have gone up, not down. Unlike Europe, where governments take responsibility to get citizens registered and where participation exceeds 80 percent, the United States places the burden of registration on the individual. For a long period, this arrangement was a boon to officials who wanted to keep the poor and uneducated from voting. States devised schemes that hampered all but the stable homeowner. In most states, residents had to live at the same address for as long as a year before they were eligible to register, and had to re-register if they moved only a few doors away. Registration offices were open for limited hours and were sometimes located at inconvenient or hard-to-find places. Many states closed their rolls a year before an election. By the time people got around to thinking about going to the polls, the deadline had long since passed. Many districts were also quick to purge the rolls of nonvoters, requiring them to re-register if they wanted to exercise their right to vote.

For years, the League of Women Voters sought to persuade Congress and the states to reduce registration barriers. Many scholars also believed that registration reform was the answer to the turnout problem. Studies indicated that participation among America's registered voters was nearly identical to that of European voters. The political scientists Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone estimated that eased registration requirements could boost presidential election turnout by as much as 9 percent.

Registration laws have been relaxed. No state today is allowed to impose a residency requirement that exceeds thirty days for a federal election. Six states--Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming--allow residents to register at the polls on Election Day. The Motor Voter Act, passed by Congress in 1993, has even shifted some of the registration burden to the states. They must offer registration to citizens who seek services at public assistance agencies, such as food stamp and Medicare offices, or who apply for driver's licenses. States can also offer registration at unemployment offices and other public facilities, such as libraries and schools. Moreover, the act requires states to allow registration by mail and prohibits them from arbitrarily purging nonvoters from the rolls.

Millions of Americans have enrolled through the Motor Voter Act. Most of them would have registered anyway under the old system, but the Federal Election Commission estimates that the legislation has added at least 10 million registrants to the rolls since 1993. With so many additional registrants, why did turnout drop by 5 million voters between 1992 and 2000?

The political scientists Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin claim that the turnout decline is a "myth." "There is no downward trend [since 1972] in the national turnout rate," they say. Their argument is built on the fact that the U.S. Census Bureau bases its official turnout figures on the total adult population. This population includes individuals who are ineligible to vote, including noncitizens, prison inmates, and convicted felons. [*The U.S. Constitution does not prevent aliens, felons, and inmates from voting. They are barred by state laws. Indeed, although all states prohibit legal aliens from voting, some allow felons to vote. Some analysts say that the most precise turnout figure is one that includes the disbarred, since the decision to exclude them is a political one. Roughly 10 percent of Americans cannot vote, compared with, for example, only 2 percent in the United Kingdom. One out of seven black males of voting age is ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. To ignore such differences, some analysts say, is to ignore official efforts to control the size and composition of the electorate. See Pippa Norris, Count Every Voice: Democratic Participation Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).] Their numbers have increased substantially since 1960. As a result of liberalized immigration laws, the United States in recent decades has experienced its largest influx of immigrants since World War I. Noncitizens were 2 percent of the adult population in 1960 and today account for 7 percent. Tougher drug and sentencing laws have also increased the number of ineligible voters. The nation now has a higher percentage of its population behind bars than any other country in the world. Roughly 3.5 million are disqualified from voting because they are incarcerated or a convicted felon. This is a sizeable increase from 1960, when fewer than 500,000 were ineligible to vote for these reasons.

When voting rates are adjusted for ineligible adults, the picture improves. Between 1960 and 2000 turnout among eligible voters declined by 9 points (from 64 to 55 percent), compared with the Census Bureau's population-based figure of 12 points (63 to 51 percent). Even by this revised estimate, however, the voting rate is disturbingly low. If turnout in 2000 had been 9 points higher, 18 million more Americans would have gone to the polls--a number equal to the combined turnout in the twenty-four states of Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. By any measure, that's a lot of missing voters.

The revised figures, however, reveal a potentially significant pattern. The decline among eligible voters is concentrated between 1960 and 1972. Since then, turnout among eligible voters in both the presidential and the congressional midterm elections has fallen only slightly, leading McDonald and Popkin to conclude that the appearance of steadily declining turnout is "an illusion." (32) If they are right, concern about electoral participation is overstated. There would still be the puzzling question of why the gains in education and registration have not produced the 15-20 percent rise in turnout that voting theories would have predicted. (33) However, fears that the participation problem might worsen would seem unfounded.

Unfortunately, a closer look at turnout trends--and, as will be evident later in this chapter, other participation trends--indicates that the flight from electoral politics is not illusory. For one, disenfranchised citizens in 1960 were not limited to noncitizens, prison inmates, and convicted felons. Southern blacks may in theory have been eligible to vote, but most of them were effectively barred from participating, as were the many poor southern whites who could not afford the poll tax or pass a literacy test. Thus, the clearest picture of what's been happening with turnout in recent decades emerges from a look at nonsouthern states only. There, turnout among eligible voters exceeded 70 percent in 1960. By 1972, it had dropped to 60 percent, and, in 1996, barely topped 50 percent. The non-South voting rate is now near the level of the 1820s, a time when many eligible voters could not read or write and had to travel by foot or on horseback for hours to get to the nearest polling place.

Since the 1970s voting rates have also fallen in presidential primaries. Nearly 30 percent of adults in states with presidential primaries voted in these contests in 1972 and 1976. Since then, the primary election turnout has fallen sharply. It was just 17 percent in the 2000 presidential primaries and 13 percent in 1996 (when only the Republicans had a contested race).

Turnout in congressional primaries has also been on a downward trajectory. It fell from 30 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 1986. Since then, the average has been closer to 15 percent.

Voting rates for statewide and local elections are not readily available, but fragmentary evidence points to a sharp decline here as well. In Connecticut, for example, turnout in municipal elections fell from 53 to 43 percent between 1989 and 1997. After surveying a number of states and cities, Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer concluded in 1999 that turnout had become "an embarrassment." They reported no locations where voting numbers had risen significantly and plenty where the numbers had dropped to historic lows. For example, the combined turnout for two statewide 1998 Texas primaries, a regular one and a runoff election, was 14 percent of registered voters. Only 3 percent showed up for the runoff.

The first elections after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did not disrupt the trend. In the two highest-profile statewide races--those for governor in Virginia and in New Jersey--turnout fell from its level four years earlier. It dropped by 5 percentage points in Virginia and by 10 points in New Jersey. Even in New York State, where residents had been urged to come out in local elections in order to show the world that democracy was stronger than ever, voting was down. Syracuse had its lowest turnout in seventy-six years, Binghamton its lowest in thirty years, and Buffalo apparently its lowest ever. Even in New York City, only 36 percent of registered voters (about 25 percent of the adult population) went to the polls. (39)


1. Vanishing Voter survey, Nov. 10-14, 2000.

2. Vanishing Voter survey, Nov. 3-7, 2000.

3. Vanishing Voter survey, Nov. 10-14, 2000.

4. Vanishing Voter survey, Nov. 3-7, 2000.

5. Sam Roberts is a composite; the quote was created by melding sentiments that Florida citizens expressed to reporters after Election Day 2000.

6. CNN survey, November 2000.

7. CNN's "Democracy in America," Nov. 5, 2000.

8. U.S. Census Bureau data, 1960 and 1996 elections.

9. Federal Election Commission data, 2002.

10. Richard A. Brody, "The Puzzle of Political Participation in America," in Anthony King, ed., The New American Political System (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1978), pp. 287-324.

11. See Angus Campbell et al., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960), pp. 412-13, 479-81.

12. V. O. Key, Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 329.

13. William C. Havard, ed., The Changing Politics of the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), p. 20.

14. Charles N. Fortenberry and F. Glenn Abney, "Mississippi, Unreconstructed and Unredeemed," in ibid., p. 507.

15. Ibid.

16. Thad Beyle and Ferrell Guillory, "Presidential Turnout in Southern States, 1960-2000," South Now, no. 1 (June 2001): 3.

17. Address to Congress, March 15, 1965.

18. Havard, Changing Politics, p. 20.

19. Ibid., pp. 512-14.

20. National Election Studies 1960 survey.

21. Walter Dean Burnham, The Current Crisis in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 128.

22. See, for example, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Why Americans Still Don't Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way (Boston: Beacon, 2000), p. 191.

23. See, for example, David Glass, Peverill Squire, and Raymond Wolfinger, "Voter Turnout: An International Comparison," Public Opinion 6 (December 1983/January 1984): 52.

24. Raymond E. Wolfinger and Steven J. Rosenstone, Who Votes? (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980).

25. North Dakota does not have a registration requirement; its residents need only provide proof of residency in order to vote on Election Day.

26. The Federal Election Commission reported that 154 million were registered to vote in 2000. Estimates based on registration increases in 1988 and 1992 (the two most recent presidential election years prior to the Motor Voter Act) suggest that registration in 2000 would have been somewhat more than 140 million without the legislation.

27. Michael P. McDonald and Samuel Popkin, "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter," p. 2. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 2000.

28. See, for example, Peter Bruce, "How the Experts Got Voter Turnout Wrong Last Year," Public Perspective, October/November 1997, pp. 39-43.

29. U.S. Census Bureau data.

30. McDonald and Popkin, "Myth of the Vanishing Voter."

31. Ibid., p. 38.

32. Ibid., p. 3.

33. Brody, "Puzzle of Political Participation in America," p. 291.

34. Walter Dean Burnham, "The System of 1986: An Analysis," in Paul Kleppner et al., eds., The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981), p. 100. McDonald and Popkin's estimate for 1960 is slightly lower: 69 percent.

35. Walter Dean Burnham's analysis, cited in Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 33.

36. Austin Ranney, Participation in American Presidential Nominations: 1976 (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1977), p. 20; Ranney, ed., The American Elections of 1980 (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1981), pp. 353, 364; Jack Moran and Mark Fenster, "Voter Turnout in Presidential Primaries," American Politics Quarterly 10 (October 1982): 453-76.

37. League of Women Voters of Connecticut Web site, Aug. 20, 2001.

38. Jack C. Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, Nonvoters: America's No-Shows (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1999), pp. 5-6.

39. "Voters Stay Home in Most Areas," Syracuse Post-Standard, Nov. 8, 2001, p. 3.

From the Hardcover edition.