The three basic principles for winning elections seem to be: turnout, turnout, and turnout.
Political science research suggests that relatively few voters’ minds are changed during the campaign, so winning depends mainly on getting your supporters to actually vote. As election day approaches, concern arises again about how many Americans cared enough to register and how many will care enough to turn out. That concern picked up in the last decades of the 20th century as voting turnout dropped from its modern high point in 1960 (see figure below).
There are complexities involved in calculating turnouts (see, notably, here). For one, adding 18-to-20-year-olds to the voter base in 1972 helped pull down the turnout rate (initially in the years marked by diamonds in the figure above). Still, there was a real fall-off in voting from 1960 into the 1980s, in spite of some efforts to make voting easier, such as DMV registration and mail-in ballots. A small industry of scholars have worked on trying to explain that drop: Did would-be voters get turned off by the political turmoil of the ‘60s, by growing media cynicism about politics, by general social alienation, or what?
That decline, however, is a minor fluctuation compared to much larger ups and downs in Americans turning out to vote. A look at that history might suggest what gets Americans out to vote.
The figure below presents rough estimates of Americans’ rates of turnout – the percentage of the voting-age eligible Americans who actually voted – from 1824 through 2008. These calculations are approximations because of lost records, false records, local variations in eligibility rules, and so on. Nonetheless, the red ovals mark out periods of major change that certainly reflect real shifts.
Americans streamed to the polls at rapidly growing rates during the antebellum years (the upwardly slanted oval) probably because: competitive two-party politics emerged; barriers to voting such as property requirements were lowered; states added more polling places so rural voters did not have to travel as far; a growing spoils system provided more government goodies for the victors; and the parties made elections entertaining – parades, fiery speech-making, and well-lubricated election days. (George Washington learned his lesson even earlier, when he lost his first election to the Virginia House of Burgess in 1755. He put more effort into his next run, including “160 gallons of liquor to be served to the 391 voters of the district” [p. 417 here].) By the 1880s and ‘90s, voting rates hit about 80 percent.
And then they plummeted to about 50% in the early 1920s (the downward oval). What happened? (See Ch. 5 of Made in America for fuller discussion.) Part of what happened was women’s suffrage; it took a while for women to get into the habit of voting. But historians note that the big drop in election day turnouts started earlier.
One factor was declining party competition; the Republican and Democratic parties retreated to different regions of the country. In addition, two general sorts of innovations helped discourage voting: changes in rules and changes in incentives. Both kinds of changes were initiated by “good government” activists (labeled “goo-goos” by cynical political scientists) who wanted to clean up American politics and also to narrow the electorate to people who they considered informed and serious voters.
Voting in the late 19th century, particularly in American cities, was controlled by “political machines” which used the votes of the poor and of immigrants to install themselves in power and skim off money from the public coffers. Native-born, upper-middle-class, largely Protestant Progressives were able, after much struggle, to reform election rules in many places and to make machine-controlled voting harder. The new rules narrowed suffrage by, for example, requiring voters to be citizens, to register long before elections, and to pass literacy tests to vote. Other rules eliminated straight party-line voting (as was possible with the voting machine pictured at the top of this post) and even party identification on ballots, making it more difficult for less-educated voters to know whom to vote for. These moves raised the barriers to voting and helped drive down participation in the North. (In the South, of course, new Jim Crow laws essentially prevented any blacks from voting.)
Progressive reforms also eliminated some of the incentives people had to vote. One was quite straightforward: bringing in the Australian ballot, the secret ballot. Previously, voters typically cast a color-coded “ticket,” which allowed observers to know for whom they voted. (And generations earlier, voters announced their votes publicly.) The arrival of the secret ballot in the late 19th century eliminated the easy opportunity to sell one’s vote, because the vote-buyer could no longer be sure that the voter he had paid had kept his part of the bargain.
The institution of civil service employment reduced other financial incentives to vote. When office-holders filled many jobs – notably, post office jobs – with their political followers, many Americans voted in order to get jobs for themselves, their relatives, or their friends. The fewer the positions filled by political appointment, the less the incentive to vote (– although, to be sure, this spoils system persisted in places, as Chicagoans well know).
These good government reforms also made it harder for the parties to raise money. The usual tactic of taking a cut from public employees and a cut from government contractors yielded less cash. That, in turn, reduced the hoopla – the parades, bands, and such – and the free goodies that parties could dispense on election day. By the time women got the vote, a lot of the fun had gone out of voting. Turnout rates fell to about 50 percent.
In 1924, the Los Angeles Times bemoaned the low rates of voting:
With what heart would Washington and his brave men have endured that awful winter at Valley Forge had they known . . . that 50 per cent of the sixth or seventh generation of Americans whom they were freeing from . . . political bondage voluntarily would re-enter it? . . . [But America] will emerge, rise and shine. Her people will take heart [and] . . . and no better inspiration than the necessity for retention in office of that able chieftain, Calvin Coolidge.
Alas, Coolidge didn’t inspire enough.
What’s motivating Americans to turn out these days? Mainly some of sense of civic duty, often spurred by the example of friends, sometimes by feelings of guilt, and occasionally by the pleadings of Get-Out-the-Vote campaigners. It looks like civic anger can also be motivating.
Others inducements don’t hurt. Recently, experimenters found that they could raise turnout several percentage points by throwing a festival – including food, music, and raffles – near neighborhood polling stations. A throw-back to the 19th century, but family-friendly this time, they assure readers.
Money has certainly come back in a big way. For example, Meg Whitman, the GOP candidate for governor of California, spent an estimated $65 per vote in winning the Republican primary earlier this year. The vast bulk of the hundreds of millions that will be spent on elections in 2010 will be spent on television and radio advertising (after a cut goes to the firms that buy the ads). One can imagine old-school pols – and old-school voters, too – wondering, “Why go through the middlemen?” Why not just buy the food, the liquor, the fun, and the voters directly?