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Voter Turnout And Registration

Dave Schuler has posted a response over at his own website to Steven Taylor’s post about voter registration  that’s worth checking out, but the item that stood out to me was this chart of voter participation in Presidential Elections from 196o to 2004:

For some reason, the FEC doesn’t have data for the 2008 election, but I’ve been able to gather these numbers from other sources on the web:

I have not been able to find a reliable number for total registered voters in 2008. There is a Census Bureau estimate that places the number at 169,000,000 but that seems odd because it would be 5,000,000 voters less than the number for 2004, which would be ahistorical, registration has consistently increased for the past 52 years. Nonetheless, we can try to estimate the number of registered voters in 2008 just to come up with some comparison figures. In 2004, registered voters accounted for roughly 79% of the voting age population, which appears to be the highest that percentage going back to at least 1960. If we assume that this ratio was roughly the same in 2008, that would put the total number of registered voters at roughly 182,400,000 (yes, I rounded up a bit), and that would put Voters as Percentage of Registered Voters at roughly 72.73%. This means that the 2008 election had the highest turnout as measured by percentage of voting age population since 1960, and the highest as a percentage of registered voters since 1992. Obviously, if the actual number of registered voters in 2008 was lower, the VAPRV would be higher, and it would be lower if the number of registered voters was higher than the estimate I made.

The data leads me to make a few observations and ask a few questions:

First, whether measured as a percentage of voting age population (VAP) or registered voters (RV) the percentage of people actually voting took a predicable and understandable drop in 1972 after the passage of the 26th Amendment. Obviously adding all those 18-21 year olds to the VAP didn’t mean that they would actually show up to vote. Indeed, while the number of registered voters increased by nearly 20% between 1968 and 1972, the number of people who actually voted increased by a mere 6.155%. Between 1968 and 1976, registration increased by 28.63%, but the total number of voters only increased by 11.4%. If you run the numbers for subsequent years, you find the same thing, the increase in registered voters is nearly always higher than the increase in actual voters.  This suggests that Dave is correct when he makes this observation:

The way it looks to me is that there’s a core of people who actually vote and that core increases more slowly than the number of registered voters does and a lot more slowly than the number of people of voting age does. I would suggest a model along the following lines. The population is comprised of several different groups: those who are motivated to register and vote, those who can be pressed to register but are really not likely to vote, and those who will neither register nor vote. Registration campaigns work on that second group but that doesn’t do much to increase the number of voters.

Given that registration campaigns typically target demographic groups that generally aren’t inclined to vote, such as those between 18-25, this isn’t at all surprising. The question is whether this is a good or a bad thing. While I understand the argument made by those who say that there is a net good when more people vote, the other side of the coin is that one has to wonder what benefit there is to the Republic if people who don’t really care about politics, haven’t paid attention to the news, and really have no desire to drag themselves to the polling place on Election Day are brought into the process. We already live in a country where people vote based on a wide variety of stupid reasons, do we really want to increase the participation of that cohort in the process? More importantly, maybe it’s just the case that some people don’t want to vote, and that should be their choice.

The second point that stands out in that chart relates to what happened in the 1990′s. After dropping continually beginning in 1972, voter participation increased significantly in 1992, only to drop to its lowest point since 1960 in 1996.  The increase in 1992 is understandable given what was going on that year. Not only did the Democrats nominate a charismatic candidate who appealed to younger voters, but there was also a third-party candidate who was pulling in poll numbers suggesting that he could end up rivaling Teddy Roosevelt’s performance in the Election of 1912. People were energized and engaged in a way they had not been before. Indeed, I remember standing in line for nearly an hour before I got to vote back then.

Why, then, the drop off in 1996?

There are likely a number of factors that explain it, including the fact that the Perot phenomenon in 1996 was nowhere near what it was in 1992, but I would suggest that one of the reasons can be tied to the fact that it was between 1992 an 1996 that we saw the beginning of the hyperpartisanship that is now a seemingly permanent part of our political life. With all the nonsense that was part of the political world during the first Clinton term, it’s not all that surprising that people would be turned off. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Republicans nominated perhaps the most uninspiring politician in the United States Senate as their nominee.

So, that leaves the parting question. What does the drop-off in turnout from 1992 to 1996 tells us about what might happen this year? Can we expect what is likely to be an exceedingly negative campaign that will concentrate on silly memes to turn people off and keep them home? Or, will we see turnout numbers similar to those in 2008? Say whatever you might about his first term, but Barack Obama is no longer the aspirational and inspirational figure he was in 2008, he has a record now, and Mitt Romney is hardly a barn burner on the stump. Maybe people will decide to sit this one out after all.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    I think the unmotivated, low-information voter does a lot less damage than the highly-motivated, misinformed voter (“keep the government out of my Medicare”, “cutting taxes raises revenue”, etc)

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  2. Hey Norm says:

    “…one has to wonder what benefit there is to the Republic if people who don’t really care about politics, haven’t paid attention to the news, and really have no desire to drag themselves to the polling place on Election Day are brought into the process. We already live in a country where people vote based on a wide variety of stupid reasons, do we really want to increase the participation of that cohort in the process?”

    I suppose it depends on which stupid vote we are discussing. Is it the stupid vote that listens to Fax News and Breitbart.com and HotAir and thinks Obama is a Socialist? In that case laws that aim at voter suppression are a good thing.
    Or is it the stupid vote that thinks war with Iran and massive tax cuts for the wealthy are probably not in their best interest…because they aren’t? In that case laws designed to encourage legal participation are a good thing.
    Frankly…I fail to see how excluding anyone from voting is laudable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  3. mattb says:

    We already live in a country where people vote based on a wide variety of stupid reasons, do we really want to increase the participation of that cohort in the process?

    The idea of “stupid voters” is always the first step towards technocracies and meritocracies.

    Frankly…I fail to see how excluding anyone from voting is laudable.

    +1 … especially if someone is a proponent of the democratic process.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  4. Joseph Mucia says:

    I wonder how reliable these numbers of registered voters are, seeing as it is extraordinarily easy for registered voter roles to become inflated.

    You can register to vote, but it is highly unusual to “unregister” — this makes it likely that voter registration numbers include millions of deceased individuals and double counts of those who have moved and registered to vote in a new city/state.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Joseph Mucia says:

    I apologize for the double-post, but I think a more interesting discussion might be whether we should register to vote at all.

    What is the benefit of registering to vote vs just going to vote with the same proof of citizenship/residency you would have brought to register? Do the benefits of registration outweigh the drawbacks of inaccurate registration lists and the additional barrier it poses to voters?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    @Joseph Mucia:

    What is the benefit of registering to vote vs just going to vote with the same proof of citizenship/residency you would have brought to register? Do the benefits of registration outweigh the drawbacks of inaccurate registration lists and the additional barrier it poses to voters?

    Well, here in Illinois, anyway, by law unregistered voters are treated as provisional voters, vote on special provisional ballots, and are not allowed to vote for anything but federal offices, i.e. Congressional representative, U. S. senator, or president/vice president.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. @Hey Norm:

    Frankly…I fail to see how excluding anyone from voting is laudable.

    I said nothing about excluding anyone. But, if some people choose not to participate, then should we not respect that choice?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Can we expect what is likely to be an exceedingly negative campaign that will concentrate on silly memes to turn people off and keep them home?

    I don’t think that a negative campaign per se results in lower voter turnout. The 2004 campaign, for example, was extraordinarily negative, and in various respects fatuous, but turnout that year was not at all depressed.

    That said, however, I’d be surprised if turnout this year wasn’t lower than it was in 2008. Obama’s hope & change dog and pony show pulled up lame and then got shot by reality. With Romney being the GOP nominee a higher number than usual of evangelical Christians will sit out the election.

    Lastly, as a separate but related item, much of the problems with the country could be solved by increasing in federal elections the minimum voting ages so as to comport with the respective Constitutional eligibility requirements for those seeking federal offices: age 25 for Congressional elections, age 30 for U.S. Senate elections, age 35 for presidential elections. The reasons for this should be obvious. If for example you’re not mature enough to be president should you really have a say who is president?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 13

  9. matt says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: I say we take this a step further and ban anyone who isn’t a lawyer from voting. AFter all if you cannot properly debate all aspects of law then why should you be allowed to vote on those who will change the law?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  10. Hey Norm says:

    “…Obama’s hope & change dog and pony show pulled up lame and then got shot by reality…”

    Bush handed off an economy shedding 650K jobs a month and a Dow below 8000. For the last 24 months the economy has added private sector jobs and the Dow is at 12,880. That’s change for the better.
    Bush institutionalized torture. Obama stopped it. That’s change for the better.
    9.11 happened on Bush’s watch. Bush made many threats aimed at OBL. Obama actually sent the Seals to kill OBL. That’s change for the better.
    Today people with pre-existing conditions can get insurance, and the health care cost curve is being bent towards a more sustainable trajectory. That’s change for the better.
    Many people today are freer…free to marry who they choose…free to serve their country. That’s change for the better.
    I guess you just live in a different reality…I’m shocked.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  11. Hey Norm says:

    “…But, if some people choose not to participate, then should we not respect that choice?”

    Is anyone being forced to vote? Because that would be illegal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  12. PD Shaw says:

    We already live in a country where people vote based on a wide variety of stupid reasons, do we really want to increase the participation of that cohort in the process

    ?

    First, I think there are good reasons not to vote. If you can tell by the political preferences of your state, district or city who will win the election in advance, why vote?

    Also, while I have voted in every general election since I was of age, I do not vote for all the down-ballot positions unless I have a comfortable basis of knowledge to vote. So, no, I don’t think its important to increase the participation rate without reference to competency; otherwise I would vote for junior college representative.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    As long as you want to change the law so that taxes and the draft follow the same pattern sure. Why should I pay any taxes (even sales) if I don’t get a choice in saying how it’s being spent?

    Of course considering the current crop of voters over the age of 35 have ruined social security, have brought us into two unfunded, ill-sought wars, and have generally acted like selfish prigs, I don’t see how your solution would really change anything.

    That said, most things you post are nonsensical, so I’m not really surprised.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  14. al-Ameda says:

    All of this obsession over Voter Registration is in the absence of any real voter fraud problem and is entirely the result off Republican desires to limit or restrict Democratic voter turnout.

    Full Disclosure: In the past 20 years of voting at my polling place I have not once been asked to provide identification.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  15. Curtis says:

    Now, it is true that Bob Dole was no Martin Luther King. (A sentence I never thought I’d have to type.) But to say Dole was the most uninspiring politician in the US Senate really is an insult to that institution. That Senate included such luminaries as Strom Thurmand, Nancy Kessembaum, Don Nickles, Herb Kohl, Dale Bumpers, and Bill Roth. If anything, Dole was among the most inspiring of that Senate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. Hey Norm says:

    @ al-Ameda…
    Full Disclosure:
    I once voted as Cliff Clavin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    While I understand the argument made by those who say that there is a net good when more people vote, the other side of the coin is that one has to wonder what benefit there is to the Republic if people who don’t really care about politics, haven’t paid attention to the news, and really have no desire to drag themselves to the polling place on Election Day are brought into the process.

    In your view, what’s the benefit of having Fox News viewers voting?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. al-Ameda says:

    @PJ:

    In your view, what’s the benefit of having Fox News viewers voting?

    Except for the fact that the crime rate drops while they’re voting, there is none.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Moosebreath says:

    Norm,

    “Full Disclosure:
    I once voted as Cliff Clavin.”

    Were you in my kitchen at the time?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. mantis says:

    Get your head out of your Clavin!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. matt says:

    @al-Ameda: In my 14 years of voting in Illinois and then Texas I have always been asked to show my ID when voting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. matt says:

    Actually always is wrong. I meant almost always in Illinois and always in Texas… I don’t think the old people manning the voting facility in Illinois trusted me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. An Interested Party says:

    All of this obsession over Voter Registration is in the absence of any real voter fraud problem and is entirely the result off Republican desires to limit or restrict Democratic voter turnout.

    Exactly right and so predictable…after all, Republicans have to do something as their voter base is shrinking…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. Jenos Idanian says:

    Great timing, Doug…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. matt says:

    Indeed 39 people being investigated for activities from voter registration fraud to voter fraud itself.

    In Chesterfield, the cases usually fell into three categories, said Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Kenneth Nickels. The felons would say: “I was a juvenile when (convicted) and I didn’t think it could carry over; (the conviction) “was so long ago” it no longer mattered; “or somebody just told me that I could register and they would take care of getting my rights restored.”
    ETC ETC ETC…

    So despite extensive investigation only about 200 cases of irregularity was discovered of which only a handful are actually being prosecuted because the vast majority were honest mistakes.

    Most were charged under a state statute that prohibits making false statements on an election form, but some were charged with illegally casting a ballot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0