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The 2020 election saw the most voter participation in 120 years

Tim Fernholz
·4 min read
Voters line up at a polling station during the election in Columbus
Voters line up at a polling station during the election in Columbus

For the first century or so of American democracy, voting rights were held by white, male property-owners. This was a smaller, more homogenous, and by definition, wealthier group than society at large.

Partisan politics was a bigger part of civic life, providing entertainment and solidarity with election day bacchanals, and almost all newspapers were party outlets, with their coverage inseparable from their political agenda. US voters turned out at high rates, equal to about 80% of the eligible voting population.

Today, American voters tend to participate far less, and indeed less than those in contemporary democracies. What changed? More people became eligible to vote, and politics became less central to everyday life.

Judging by the voters turning out in record numbers this week for national elections pitting president Donald Trump against former vice president Joe Biden, the situation could be shifting again.

Beyond overlapping civil and political society, polarization played a big role in 18th century voting. The highest turnout elections coincided with national debates over slavery and its expansion in new territories and states; political organizing around these issues, and ultimately the Civil War, apparently made political participation more urgent to Americans.

At the same time, more people were joining the voting eligible population. By 1865, all US states had abolished property requirements for white voters. After the Civil War, the 14th and 15th amendments expanded to include Black people, at least on paper. Women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

But the expansion of the franchise also created new dynamics where political actors had incentives to prevent people from voting. With the end of reconstruction in 1877, Black voters faced terrorist groups like the Klu Klux Klan that violently prevented their political participation, and Southern states enacted laws including poll taxes and literacy tests that reduced participation even further. The Civil Rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enabled more Black voting, but even today we can spot irregularities that point to discriminatory voting practices.

The 20th century also saw politics recede as a central motivator for American society. More media outlets adopted a non-partisan ideology. Urban political machines receded in importance with the decline of patronage jobs and good government reforms. Unions crumbled, removing a key avenue for working people’s political participation. Social scientists argue that American civic participation has fallen generally, and we can see that reflected in election participation.

Some argue that this isn’t actually a problem—that electoral self-sorting ensures that only enthusiasts who deem themselves well-informed will vote. Efforts to ease parts of the voting process, like automatic registration or ending ID requirements, don’t necessarily increase voting behavior. But more common infrastructure problems, like the long lines caused by too few voting sites, do seem to diminish future turnout.

It is clear, just from global measures of democratic participation, that there are broad obstacles to voting that exist in the US and not elsewhere. Besides compulsory voting in some jurisdictions, other countries make election day a national holiday, allow more time and methods for voting, and boast preference-ranking systems that might better reflect voter intent, increasing the incentive to participate.

Still, some social scientists argue that becoming engaged, informed, and confident that a vote will influence the outcome is the biggest challenge to voting—and obtaining the time, education, and resources required to achieve this isn’t always easy. Two obvious incentives to pay this price are rising partisanship and a belief that political choices are dramatically affecting your everyday life, two trends we’ve seen play out in the Trump era that may explain this year’s record participation.

That may also explain why this trend won’t continue into the next election if Trump is defeated—a return to politics as usual might lead to turnout as usual. Or, perhaps this is the beginning of a renaissance of hyper-partisanship, as in the early days of the Republic, or a return to broader civic participation as Americans reckon with their fragmented society. We’ll just have to wait for the next election to find out.

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