Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections

 Please see Notes below.

 

Year

Turnout Voting Age Population (VAP) Voting Eligible Population (VEP) Registered Voters Turnout as % VAP  Turnout as % VEP

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

39,816,522

75,768,000

 

 

52.6%

 

1936

45,646,817

80,174,000

 

 

56.9%

 

1940

49,815,312

84,728,000

 

 

58.8%

 

1944

48,025,684

85,654,000

 

 

56.1%

 

1948

48,833,680

95,573,000

 

 

51.1%

 

1952

61,551,919

99,929,000

 

 

61.6%

 

1956

62,027,040

104,515,000

 

 

59.3%

 

1960

68,836,385

109,672,000

 

63,854,789

62.8%

 

1964

70,097,935

114,090,000

 

73,715,818

61.4%

 

1968

73,026,831

120,285,000

 

81,658,180

60.7%

 

1972

77,625,152

140,777,000

 

97,283,541

55.1%

 

1976

81,603,346

152,308,000

 

105,024,916

53.6%

 

1980

86,496,851

163,945,000

159,635,102

113,036,958

52.8%

54.2%

1984

92,654,861

173,995,000

167,701,904

124,184,647

53.3%

55.2%

1988

91,586,725

181,956,000

173,579,281

126,381,202

50.3%

52.8%

1992

104,600,366

189,493,000

179,655,523

133,821,178

55.2%

58.2%

1996

96,389,818

196,789,000

186,347,044

146,211,960

49.0%

51.7%

2000

105,594,024

209,130,000

194,331,436

156,421,311

50.5%

54.3%

2004

122,349,480

219,508,000

203,483,455

174,800,000

55.7%

60.1%

2008

131,406,895

229,989,000

213,313,508

146,310,000

57.1%

61.6%

2012

129,139,997

240,177,000

222,474,111

153,160,000

53.8%

58.0%

2016

136,787,187

249,422,000

230,931,921

157,596,000

54.8%

59.2%

 

Notes

“Turnout” refers to efforts to measure the extent of popular participation in elections.  Turnout is measured as a ratio.  The numerator is the number of votes cast.  Various measures may be used as the denominator:  (1) The Voting Age Population—broadly speaking it is the population above the legal voting age;  (2) Voting Eligible Population—all citizens who are not excluded from voting because of some legal impediment;  (3) Registered voters.  Reported measures of each of these has varied somewhat over time as estimates have been revised and refined.

 

Three propositions underlie most research on turnout. 

  • First: turnout may be a way of assessing the health of a popular democracy.  Well-functioning democracies are more inclusive and will have higher turnout. 
  • Second:  Ease of registration should affect turnout.  In comparing two jurisdictions over time with comparable demographic caracteristics (education, age, income, etc.), turnout should be higher in the one with less restrictive registration requirements.
  • Third:  Electoral competition should drive up turnout.  Other things equal, when the stakes in the election seem greater, turnout should increase.

 

Voting Age Population is typically calculated based on census data (“resident population [21 or 18] years and older”).  But before 1920 the numbers used are always adjusted for the shifting definition of citizens with voting rights.  So women are excluded prior to 1920.  The classic attempt to define the voting age population for the 19th century is by Walter Dean Burnham, “The Turnout Problem” in Elections American Style ed., Reichley (Brookings:  Washington D.C., 1987)  Burnham published only the turnout ratio, not his actual estimate of the voting age population!

 

Voting Eligible Population is an attempt to make an even more precise definition of the population of people who have a legal right to vote—potential voters.  Making the estimates of noncitizens and disfranchized felons has been carried out mostly by Professor Michael McDonald and data are published in the U.S. Elections Project website. 

 

Registered voters counts the total number of eligible people who have taken the additional step of actually registering to vote.  The best estimates are produced by the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.  Registration was not a universal requirement until “well into the twentieth century” (Ansolabhere and Konisky) and some states did not impose uniform registration requirements until the 1970s.  So it is possible for the number of votes to exceed the number of registered voters. Scholars point out that census data may not be entirely accurate (see Bennett 1990).

Number of votes cast in presidential elections is published by the U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Clerk, Statistics of the Presidential and Congressional Election for various years starting with 1920.

Source(s)

Ansolabehere, Stephen and David M. Konisky, “The Introduction of Voter Registration and Its Effect on Turnout,” Political Analysis Winter 2006, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 83-100.

Bennett, Stephen Earl, “The Uses and Abuses of Registration and Turnout Data,” PS:  Political Science and Politics Vol 23, No. 2 (Jun., 1990):  166-171.

Burnham, Walter Dean, “The Turnout Problem,” Elections American Style ed. A. james Reichley (Brookings:  Washington DC 1987)

Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

McDonald, Michael P., and Samuel L. Popkin, “The Myth of the Vanishing Voter,” American Political Science Review 95 (2001):  963-974. 

Proquest Historical Statistics of the United States 2020, Table 441

US House of Representatives, Office of the Clerk, Statistics of the Presidential and Congressional Election

U.S. Elections Project