Most modern presidential elections in the United States have a turnout of between 50 and 60 percent. Yet voter turnout has fluctuated throughout the country’s history depending on who has the right to vote, whether those who have the right to vote are actually able to vote, and how much voters perceive. the stakes of an election. Already, the 2020 election appears to have the highest turnout in over a century.
Highest voter turnout ever recorded in the 1870s
The lowest voter turnout for a presidential race was in 1792, when the only people who could vote were white males, and some states limited voting to white males who were owners. That year, a paltry 6.3 percent of that narrow field of eligible voters, or about 28,000 people, re-elected George Washingtion. The first time the presidential voter turnout exceeded 50% was in 1828, when Andrew Jackson defeated incumbent John Quincy Adams. After that, the trend is up, peaking at the end of the 19th century.
The highest turnout in a presidential race was in 1876, when 82.6% of eligible voters (white and black males) voted in the race between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Despite the high turnout, it was an election filled with widespread voter repression. Black men had recently been granted the right to vote with the 15th Amendment, and white men in the south intended to prevent them from voting by using paramilitary violence.
The outgoing president was Republican Ulysses S. Grant, a former Union general who had successfully dismantled the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, but whose administration was filled with scandals. At this time, voters in the north and black voters in the south generally favored the Republican Party, while white men in the south favored the Democratic Party. Angry at the reconstruction reforms that had given political power to black men, these southern white men sought a Democratic victory, sometimes using violent means.
READ MORE: How the ‘Lincoln Party’ won the once democratic South
Historian Eric Foner said without voter suppression Republican candidate Hayes would likely have easily won the popular vote. Instead, election results showed he lost the popular vote with 47.9% to Tilden’s 50.9%, but won the Electoral College by just one voter.
When Democrats challenged 19 of Hayes’ election votes, the US Congress got involved. Hayes was able to keep those voters and become president by promising Democrats that he would end the reconstruction. After Hayes’ reconstruction was completed in 1877, the southern states immediately began passing laws preventing black males from voting and building a system of segregation that would become known as Jim Crow.
READ MORE: How the 1876 election tested the Constitution and effectively ended reconstruction
Decline in voter turnout in the 20th century
Every presidential election with a turnout of 80% or more took place between the mid to late 19th century. They include the 1840 election of William Henry Harrison, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the 1868 election of Ulysses S. Grant, the 1880 election of James A. Garfield, and the 1888 election. by Benjamin Harrison. These were years of intense partisan divisiveness, especially over slavery and the civil rights of black Americans.
In the 20th century, the turnout peaked in the very first presidential election. In 1900, the year Republican William McKinley was re-elected, the turnout was 73.7%. After that, the turnout never exceeded 65.7%, which was the rate for the 1908 election in which Republican William Howard Taft won. This downward trend is at least in part due to the fact that even though the pool of eligible voters has grown over the 20th century, new rules and restrictions have made voting increasingly difficult for many of them. .
In 1920, white women across the country and black women who lived in the northern states were granted the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. Yet in the south, white Americans have prevented black women from exercising their constitutional right to vote in the same way they have prevented black men from doing so. In addition, the 19th Amendment did not address the fact that Americans of Asian and Native American descent could not vote.
READ MORE: Native Americans were not allowed to vote in all states before 1962
Over the following decades, activists sought to change this. In the 1960s, blacks, Asians and Native Americans won a series of federal and state battles to secure their right to vote. In 1961, residents of Washington, DC, were granted the right to vote for president with the 23rd Amendment; and in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the federal voting age from 21 to 18, allowing more young people to vote in presidential elections.
READ MORE: How the Vietnam War Project Boosted the Fight to Lower the Legal Voting Age
In 2013, a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States Shelby County v. Holder struck down a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, giving the federal government the power to review electoral laws and practices in states with a history of voter suppression. As a result, many states have since introduced practices such as purging voters from voters lists, closing polling stations and passing voter identification laws.