After reading about the recent election and hearing that the voter turnout was somewhat lower than in the last two cycles, I went and found this page from UCSB, that listed voter turnout percentages from 1824 to 2012.

On plotting the data, I noticed a large change around the years 1896-1908, where before there were turnouts in the high 70's, now they were (and remain til today) in the mid-50's to low 60's.

U.S. Presidential Election Turnout (% of Voting Age Populace), 1824-2012

Were there social or political reasons why the turnout dropped so dramatically around this period compared to before? There are three data points that suggest that the turnout was lower in the 1820's (~55%), so if they are to be believed, why was there a large increase in turnout starting in the 1830's?

  • 2
    I would point that since the 1850s until the end of the Civil War there was a lot of political infighting about the slavery issue... I cannot explain why it continued so long after it stopped, though.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 15, 2016 at 23:11
  • *it stopped = the Civil War ended.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 15, 2016 at 23:17
  • Back then people were responsible and conscientious. Then, the easy livin' made the young'uns soft and lazy. Now, get off my lawn.
    – user4012
    Nov 15, 2016 at 23:25
  • More seriously, i'm somewhat suspicious of the party system shifts... timelines looks about right (see my question that lists actual system timelines)
    – user4012
    Nov 15, 2016 at 23:26
  • 2
    I'd guess that the drop around 1920 is because many women had suddenly become eligible to vote, without actually doing so. If you double your eligible population, but don't double participation, your percentage will drop. That doesn't explain why it was on a decline before that, though. It'd be interesting to note when an incumbent was running on this as well - that might explain the sea-sawing.
    – Bobson
    Nov 15, 2016 at 23:53

1 Answer 1


This article mentions several possibilities (changing demographics, elimination of fraud, etc.) but ends up with the 1840-1900 period being a period of particularly high partisanship. For example, in 1858, there were no claims of media neutrality. There were Lincoln papers and Douglas papers.

Afterwards, the states settled into Republican and Democrat states. If you lived in a Republican state why bother voting? The Republican would win in the end. And vice versa for the Democrat states. Turnout only matters in "swing" states, where the result can go either way. And in some years, it doesn't even matter there. In the landslides of 1964, 1972, and 1984, the result was known beforehand.

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