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In The Hidden Election (1981), American conservative political activist and commentator Paul Weyrich was quoted as saying:

So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Is this quote factually correct with respect to whether elections are won by a majority of voting-age Americans?

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    The quote is ambiguous. Is it talking about turnout multiplied by winner side/fraction being less than half of the eligible voters (which makes it trivially true in many countries with low turnout) or the fact that the US has an electoral college, a Senate, etc.? – Fizz May 12 at 12:56
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    @Fizz the full context of the quote indicates that it relates to the former: "I don't want everybody to vote ... As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." – CDJB May 12 at 13:07
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    I don’t think it’s the intended meaning, but the quote is also ambiguous enough to mean that “elections are not won by the majority of candidates...”, implying that lots of people run and lose. – Bobson May 12 at 13:13
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    I didn't add it during my edits, but it seems off to not include the whole quote in your question. Is there a reason you removed the rest of the quote rather than including it all? – divibisan May 12 at 18:31
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    How many votes do you need to get to become President? 270. – hobbs May 13 at 5:23
36

This quote is correct with regard to presidential elections - the US presidential election has never been won by a candidate which was voted for by the majority of the voting-eligible population. Below is a chart created using data on VEP turnout from here, and overall presidential election result data from here. It shows that the largest proportion of the VEP that has ever voted for the winning candidate was 42.6%, for Ulysses Grant in 1868. At that election, the percentage of the VEP which voted was 80.9%, and of those voters, 52.66% voted for Grant.

enter image description here

Year,VEP Turnout Rate,% of Popular Vote,Winner,% of VEP voting for winner
1789,11.6%,100.00%,George Washington,11.60%
1792,6.3%,100.00%,George Washington,6.30%
1796,20.1%,53.45%,John Adams,10.74%
1800,32.3%,61.43%,Thomas Jefferson,19.84%
1804,23.8%,72.79%,Thomas Jefferson,17.32%
1808,36.8%,64.73%,James Madison,23.82%
1812,40.4%,50.37%,James Madison,20.35%
1816,16.9%,68.16%,James Monroe,11.52%
1820,10.1%,80.61%,James Monroe,8.14%
1824,26.9%,30.92%,John Quincy Adams,8.32%
1828,57.3%,55.93%,Andrew Jackson,32.05%
1832,57.0%,54.74%,Andrew Jackson,31.20%
1836,56.5%,50.79%,Martin Van Buren,28.70%
1840,80.3%,52.87%,William Henry Harrison,42.45%
1844,79.2%,49.54%,James Polk,39.24%
1848,72.8%,47.28%,Zachary Taylor,34.42%
1852,69.5%,50.83%,Franklin Pierce,35.33%
1856,79.4%,45.29%,James Buchanan,35.96%
1860,81.8%,39.65%,Abraham Lincoln,32.43%
1864,76.3%,55.03%,Abraham Lincoln,41.99%
1868,80.9%,52.66%,Ulysses Grant,42.60%
1872,72.1%,55.58%,Ulysses Grant,40.07%
1876,82.6%,47.92%,Rutherford Hayes,39.58%
1880,80.5%,48.31%,James Garfield,38.89%
1884,78.2%,48.85%,Grover Cleveland,38.20%
1888,80.5%,47.80%,Benjamin Harrison,38.48%
1892,75.8%,46.02%,Grover Cleveland,34.88%
1896,79.6%,51.02%,William McKinley,40.61%
1900,73.7%,51.64%,William McKinley,38.06%
1904,65.5%,56.42%,Theodore Roosevelt,36.96%
1908,65.7%,51.57%,William Taft,33.88%
1912,59.0%,41.84%,Woodrow Wilson,24.69%
1916,61.8%,49.24%,Woodrow Wilson,30.43%
1920,49.2%,60.32%,Warren Harding,29.68%
1924,48.9%,54.04%,Calvin Coolidge,26.43%
1928,56.9%,58.21%,Herbert Hoover,33.12%
1932,56.9%,57.41%,Franklin Roosevelt,32.67%
1936,61.0%,60.80%,Franklin Roosevelt,37.09%
1940,62.4%,54.74%,Franklin Roosevelt,34.16%
1944,55.9%,53.39%,Franklin Roosevelt,29.85%
1948,52.2%,49.55%,Harry Truman,25.87%
1952,62.3%,55.18%,Dwight Eisenhower,34.38%
1956,60.2%,57.37%,Dwight Eisenhower,34.54%
1960,63.8%,49.72%,John Kennedy,31.72%
1964,62.8%,61.05%,Lyndon Johnson,38.34%
1968,62.5%,43.42%,Richard Nixon,27.14%
1972,56.2%,60.67%,Richard Nixon,34.10%
1976,54.8%,50.08%,Jimmy Carter,27.44%
1980,54.2%,50.75%,Ronald Reagan,27.51%
1984,55.2%,58.77%,Ronald Reagan,32.44%
1988,52.8%,53.37%,George H. W. Bush,28.18%
1992,58.1%,43.01%,Bill Clinton,24.99%
1996,51.7%,49.23%,Bill Clinton,25.45%
2000,54.2%,47.87%,George W. Bush,25.95%
2004,60.1%,50.73%,George W. Bush,30.49%
2008,61.6%,52.93%,Barack Obama,32.60%
2012,58.6%,51.06%,Barack Obama,29.92%
2016,60.1%,46.09%,Donald Trump,27.70%
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  • 3
    I suspect the numbers for Grant are inaccurate, as many in the conquered territories of the Confederacy were barred from voting until Johnson pardoned them in December of that year. – jamesqf May 12 at 17:08
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    @jamesqf That would make them not voting elegible, would it not? – Please stop being evil May 13 at 5:51
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    @TomášZato-ReinstateMonica Got what they asked for is easier to determine. ;-) – Deduplicator May 13 at 12:48
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    Right, the question here is what does the ambiguous phrase "the majority of the people." mean? You have chosen to interpret it to mean VEP, but you could just as easily interpret it to mean All adults in the U.S, including women before they had the right to vote, and slaves before they were emancipated, and native americans. You could even chose to include children, in which case it would also be true that no election has ever even had "a majority of the people" voting in them. And this is the whole point of such a weasley phrase: it can never be wrong because it doesn't mean anything. – RBarryYoung May 13 at 13:08
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    @RBarryYoung in the full context of the quote it seems clear to me that it relates to the VEP. Perhaps you'd be better seeking clarification with the question asker? – CDJB May 13 at 13:16
6

When the Voting-Eligible Population (VEP) turnout rate is less than 50 percent, the election is decided by less than a majority of the people. As may be seen in the image below, there have been times when the turnout was less than 50 percent. However, the winner of the election almost always receives less than a majority of the VEP vote.

It is possible that, in local elections with high voter participation rates and a highly favored or unopposed candidate, the winner may receive a majority of VEP votes. Such an election might be for a city council or school board seat, for example.


National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789-Present

National general election voting-eligible population turnout rates for presidential and midterm elections are plotted below, along with the raw data provided in an accompanying spreadsheet.

These numbers are taken from Vital Statistics of American Politics (CQ Press, Stanley and Niemi, eds.). Turnout rates from 1948-present are reported here and pre-1948 turnout rates are from Walter Dean Burnham, to whom I and many others are deeply indebted.

Of course, historical turnout rates are calculated from data of dubious accuracy and are at times incomplete when statistics on a class of disfranchised population -- such white male property owners who meet a religious test -- must be estimated. However, these historical turnout rates are regarded as the most accurate available.

United States VEP Turnout Rates

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3

US election system is very specific - as it involves an electoral college - meant to balance votes from all states, to prevent huge states over-voting small states.

If there would be "direct" voting, without electoral college, small states having very small amount of votes would have, in fact, no representation in elections. US has much more decentralized system, than for example, European countries, so it is not very surprising, that it has different voting system.

So, in general, NO, there is no direct link between majority and victory in elections, but there is a serious origin for such system.

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    Obviously this answer is only talking about US presidential elections. It's impossible to make a comparison with European countries, as most of them are parliamentary states, and tend to have non-executive presidents who are chosen by parliament or other elected groups. In countries that do have executive presidents, they tend to be directly elected, even in federal states (e.g. Russia). The US electoral college is thus an extremely unusual method for achieving this. – Steve Melnikoff May 12 at 12:17
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    EU have something similar to electoral college. A vote from a person in a small country count as more than in a big country. And I think USA is easier to compare to entire EU than the individual European countries – Thomas Koelle May 12 at 12:28
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    @ThomasKoelle, about the whole EU - yes, I thought about that while formulating, but then decided to compare with separate countries. Just because EU is too loose centralized to treat it a county. But, generally, yes there is something similar – user2501323 May 12 at 12:37
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    @ThomasKoelle The US electoral college is unique, in that electors can ultimately vote for whomever they like. There is nothing like that in the EU, result scaling notwithstanding. – Asteroids With Wings May 12 at 23:42
  • For the presidential election, at the end you get one person elected (or two, if you count the vice president). If you have more than two states, not all of them can be represented here anyways. Your argument counts more if it is about electing some kind of parliament (which also in many other regions works in similar ways). – Paŭlo Ebermann May 13 at 0:04
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The question all hinges upon how one defines "the people".

The metrics used to measure voter turnout come in a variety of forms. There is:

VAP: voting age people. This is any citizen 18 or older. Does not factor in citizens who have lost the right to vote - typically by either felony crime conviction, or dishonorable discharge from the armed forces.

VEP: voter eligible people. A bit more accurate, as it does factor in those who have lost their eligibility. It does not factor in those who didn't actually register to vote.

Registered voters: Those who actually can vote.

From the US Elections Project, comes this breakdown of VAP vs VEP. Out of 250 million voting age people in 2016, about 4 million have lost the right to vote from criminal convictions, which is around 1.6% of VAP.

Also from that study comes voter turnout - percentage of eligible voters actually did vote.

Typically, in major elections, the actual turnout in a major (presidential) election varies from around 50-60%.

This Pew Trusts study estimates that around 21% of eligible voters don't register to vote. So they can't vote, even though they are eligible.

Consider the 21% who didn't register (VEP doesn't factor that in), roughly only around 40-50% of the people who are eligible to vote actually did turn up at the polls and cast votes.

One fact can't be denied: elections are decided by 100% of the citizens who have not lost their voting rights, have registered, and actually did go to the polls.

US presidential elections also use the Electoral College, which tends to weight the outcome in favor of less populated states. However, it should be noted that the US Senate favors less populated states to an even greater degree: two senators per state, regardless of population.

To summarize:

One can say that only around 40-50% of voting age people determine the election.

One can also say that elections are decided by 98.4% of the electorate - minus those who have lost their eligibility through their own actions.

After all, not registering or not going to the polls is also a decision.

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  • Re "minus those who have lost their eligibility through their own actions.": eligibility can be lost through the actions of others, as with those convicted of crimes they did not commit, victims of racist disenfranchisement, victims of voter suppression, etc. – agc May 16 at 5:54

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