You Call This An Election? America's Peculiar Democracy

By Steven E. Schier | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 3
WHY TURNOUT FELL

It is a remarkable story, one unusual in the history of world democracy. It is also a puzzle. Political science studies have consistently found more educated citizens more likely to turn out and vote. In the 1880s, no nation could rival America in voting turnout, though less than 10 percent of the American voting age population had even a high school education. Turnout in presidential contests steadily hovered around 80 percent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (Kornbluth 2000, 12). But in 2000, a bit over half of eligible voters—55.6 percent—turned out in the closest election in American presidential history when the percentage of Americans with college degrees had reached 25 percent for the first time in American history (McDonald and Popkin 2001, 966).

No stable democratic nation has ever suffered so large a long-term decline in voting participation. The huge drop-off challenges the very legitimacy and accountability of governments produced by elections in which so many citizens stay home. This chapter examines those consequences, after first attempting to solve the case of the vanishing voter. Many forces lie behind such a mammoth trend. Changes in election rules, governmental structure, and the power and effectiveness of both political parties and interest groups all contributed to an abandonment of the polling booth the likes of which no nation other than America has encountered.

Figure 3.1 details the turnout trend in presidential and congressional elections from 1840 to 2000. From a participatory apex from 1876 to 1892, the proportion of citizens voting declined from 1896 to 1932. Turnout then rose during the economic crises of the 1930s, followed by another gradual decline to the present levels, the lowest since the 1920s. The voting

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