Voter Turnout


Political parties and campaign managers approach every population of voters differently, based on what they know about factors that influence turnout. Everyone targets likely voters, which are the category of registered voters who vote regularly. Most campaigns also target registered voters in general, because they are more likely to vote than unregistered citizens. For this reason, many polling agencies ask respondents whether they are already registered and whether they voted in the last election. Those who are registered and did vote in the last election are likely to have a strong interest in politics and elections and will vote again, provided they are not angry with the political system or politicians.

Some campaigns and civic groups target members of the voting-eligible population who are not registered, especially in states that are highly contested during a particular election. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which is now defunct, was both lauded and criticized for its efforts to get voters in low socio-economic areas registered during the 2008 election.Michael B. Farrell. September 16, 2009. “What is the ACORN Controversy About?” Christian Science Monitor, Similarly, interest groups in Los Angeles were criticized for registering homeless citizens as a part of an effort to gather signatures to place propositions on the ballot.Jennifer Steinhauer, “Opponents of California Ballot Initiative Seek Inquiry,” New York Times, 21 November 2007. These potential voters may not think they can vote, but they might be persuaded to register and then vote if the process is simplified or the information they receive encourages them to do so.

Campaigns also target different age groups with different intensity, because age is a relatively consistent factor in predicting voting behavior. Those between eighteen and twenty-five are least likely to vote, while those sixty-five to seventy-four are most likely. One reason for lower voter turnout among younger citizens may be that they move frequently.Lori A. Demeter. 2010. “The Reluctant Voter: Is Same Day Registration the Skeleton Key?” International Journal of Business and Social Science 1, No. 1: 191–193. Another reason may be circular: Youth are less active in government and politics, leading the parties to neglect them. When people are neglected, they are in turn less likely to become engaged in government.Jane Eisner. 2004. Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press. They may also be unaware of what a government provides. Younger people are often still in college, perhaps working part-time and earning low wages. They are unlikely to be receiving government benefits beyond Pell Grants or government-subsidized tuition and loans. They are also unlikely to be paying taxes at a high rate. Government is a distant concept rather than a daily concern, which may drive down turnout.

In 2012, for example, the Census Bureau reported that only 53.6 percent of eligible voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four registered and 41.2 percent voted, while 79.7 percent of sixty-five to seventy-four-year-olds registered and 73.5 percent voted.“Table 2. Reported Voting and Registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age, for the United States: November 2012,” (November 6, 2015). Once a person has retired, reliance on the government will grow if he or she draws income from Social Security, receives health care from Medicare, and enjoys benefits such as transportation and social services from state and local governments (Figure).

Image A is of John McCain speaking to a group of people. Several people are holding signs that read “ AARP”. Image B is of a bar graph titled “Difference in Voter Registration and Voting between Age Groups”. Under the label “Registered”, “Ages 18 – 28” is approximately 55%, and “Ages 65 - 74” is approximately 80%”. Under the label “Voted”, “Ages 18 – 28” is approximately 40%” and “Ages 65 – 74” is approximately 75%. A source at the bottom of the graph reads “Census Bureau. “Table 2: Reported Voting and Registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age, for the United States: November 2012”.”
On January 7, 2008, John McCain campaigned in New Hampshire among voters holding AARP signs (a). AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, is one of the most influential interest groups because senior citizens are known to vote at nearly double the rate of young people (b), thanks in part to their increased reliance on government programs as they age. (credit a: modification of work by Ryan Glenn)

Due to consistently low turnout among the young, several organizations have made special efforts to demonstrate to younger citizens that voting is an important activity. Rock the Vote began in 1990, with the goal of bringing music, art, and pop culture together to encourage the youth to participate in government. The organization hosts rallies, festivals, and concerts that also register voters and promote voter awareness, bringing celebrities and musicians to set examples of civic involvement. Rock the Vote also maintains a website that helps young adults find out how to register in their state. Citizen Change, started by Sean “Diddy” Combs and other hip hop artists, pushed slogans such as “Vote or Die” during the 2004 presidential election in an effort to increase youth voting turnout. These efforts may have helped in 2004 and 2008, when the number of youth voting in the presidential elections increased (Figure).Jose Antonio Vargas, “Vote or Die? Well, They Did Vote,” Washington Post, 9 November 2004; Melissa Dahl. 5 November 2008. “Youth Vote May Have Been Key in Obama’s Win,”

A line graph titled “Voting Rates Over Time for the Voting-Age Population: 1964-2012”. The x-axis starts in 1964 and marks every 4 years until 2012. The y-axis goes from 30 to 80 percent. The line labeled “18 to 24 years” starts at 50.9% in 1964, drops steadily to around 40% in 1980, increases to around 43% in 1984, decreases to around 37% in 1988, increases to around 44% in 1992, decreases to around 30% in 1996 and stays there through 2000, increases to around 43% in 2004, then around 45% in 2008, then decreases to 38% in 2012. The line labeled “25 to 44 years” starts at 69% in 1964, then drops steadily to around 57% in 1976 and stays there through 1984, decreases to around 55% in 1988, increases to around 58% in 1992, decreases to around 50% in 1996, then increases steadily to around 55% in 2004 and stays there through 2008, then decreases to 49.5% in 2012. The line labeled “45 to 64 years” starts at 75.9% in 1964, decreases steadily to around 68% in 1976 and stays around there until 1992, decreases to around 63% in 1996 and stays there through 2000,, increases to around 68% in 2004, and then decreases steadily to 63.4% in 2012. The line labeled “65 years and older” starts at 66.3% in 1964, decreases steadily to around 63% in 1976, increases steadily to around 69% in 1992, decreases to around 67% in 1996, increases steadily to around 68% in 2004, decreases to around 67% in 2008, and increases to 69.7% in 2012. At the bottom of the graph a source is listed: “U. S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Select Years”.

Making a Difference

In 2008, for the first time since 1972, a presidential candidate intrigued America’s youth and persuaded them to flock to the polls in record numbers. Barack Obama not only spoke to young people’s concerns but his campaign also connected with them via technology, wielding texts and tweets to bring together a new generation of voters (Figure).

Image A is of a group of people standing and holding binders. Image B is a screenshot of a cell phone screen. The screen reads “Text message from Obama. Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our VP nominee. Watch the first Obama-Biden rally live at 3pm ET on Spread the word!”
On November 5, 2008, union members get ready to hit the streets in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to “get out the vote” (GOTV) for Barack Obama (a). On August 23, 2008, the Obama campaign texted supporters directly in order to announce that he had selected Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) as his running mate (b). (credit a: modification of work by Casie Yoder; credit b: modification of work by “brownpau”/Flickr)

The high level of interest Obama inspired among college-aged voters was a milestone in modern politics. Since the 1971 passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, voter turnout in the under-25 range has been low. While opposition to the Vietnam War and the military draft sent 50.9 percent of 21- to 24-year-old voters to the polls in 1964, after 1972, turnout in that same age group dropped to below 40 percent as youth became disenchanted with politics. In 2008, however, it briefly increased to 45 percent from only 32 percent in 2000. Yet, despite high interest in Obama’s candidacy in 2008, younger voters were less enchanted in 2012—only 38 percent showed up to vote that year.Thom File, “Young-Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections 1964-2012,” United States Census Bureau, P20-573, April 2014,

What qualities should a presidential or congressional candidate show in order to get college students excited and voting? Why?

A citizen’s socioeconomic status—the combination of education, income, and social status—may also predict whether he or she will vote. Among those who have completed college, the 2012 voter turnout rate jumps to 75 percent of eligible voters, compared to about 52.6 percent for those who have completed only high school.“Table 5. Reported Voting and Registration, by Age, Sex, and Educational Attainment: November 2012,” (November 6, 2015). This is due in part to the powerful effect of education, one of the strongest predictors of voting turnout. Income also has a strong effect on the likelihood of voting. Citizens earning $100,000 to $149,999 a year are very likely to vote and 76.9 percent of them do, while only 50.4 percent of those who earn $15,000 to $19,999 vote.“Table 7. Reported Voting and Registration of Family Members, by Age and Family Income: November 2012,” (November 5, 2015). Once high income and college education are combined, the resulting high socioeconomic status strongly predicts the likelihood that a citizen will vote.

Race is also a factor. Caucasians turn out to vote in the highest numbers, with 63 percent of white citizens voting in 2012. In comparison, 62 percent of African Americans, 31.3 percent of Asian Americans, and 31.8 percent of Hispanic citizens voted in 2012. Voting turnout can increase or decrease based upon the political culture of a state, however. Hispanics, for example, often vote in higher numbers in states where there has historically been higher Hispanic involvement and representation, such as New Mexico, where 49 percent of Hispanic voters turned out in 2012.“Table 4b. Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2012,” (November 2, 2015). In 2016, while Donald Trump rode a wave of discontent among white voters to the presidency, the fact that Hillary Clinton nearly beat him has much to do with the record turnout of Latinos in response to numerous remarks on immigration that Trump made throughout his campaign. Record Latino turnouts were seen in many states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and North Carolina.Steven Shepard. 6 November 2016. “Latino voting surge rattles Trump campaign,” (November 9, 2016).

While less of a factor today, gender has historically been a factor in voter turnout. After 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, women began slowly turning out to vote, and now they do so in high numbers. Today, more women vote than men. In 2012, 59.7 percent of men and 63.7 percent of women reported voting.“Table 1. Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2012,” (November 2, 2015). While women do not vote exclusively for one political party, 41 percent are likely to identify as Democrats and only 25 percent are likely to identify as Republicans.Frank Newport. 12 June 2009. “Women More Likely to Be Democrats, Regardless of Age,” In 2016, while women turned out to vote in record numbers,Chris Bowers. 4 November 2016. “This is awesome: Women voting at higher rates than men relative to 2012 in EVERY STATE,” (November 9, 2016). the margin that Hillary Clinton won was more narrow in Florida than many presumed it would be and may have helped Donald Trump win that state. Even after allegations of sexual assault and revelations of several instances of sexism by Mr. Trump, Clinton only won 54 percent of the women’s vote in Florida. In contrast, rural voters voted overwhelmingly for Trump, at much higher rates than they had for Mitt Romney in 2012.

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