The term voter turnout is often used in inconsistent ways to describe and account for the act, the qualities, the causes, and the significance of voter participation in democratic elections. Nineteenth-century journalistic accounts employed the term to recognize the presence of voters on election day or to describe the apparent capacities of political parties, groups, and candidates to mobilize their supporters in a particular election. Political scientists in the 1920s and 1930s ascribed additional evaluative meanings to the phenomena of voting once they began to collect and analyze election data more systematically with newly adopted quantitative techniques.
Today, the media and academics offer measurements of electoral participation, or voter turnout, to explain election results and indicate, in statistical terms, the relative presence of democratic conditions; yet this familiar term continues to reflect essential elements of its past and, thus, its definition remains contested. As a result, many who regularly employ the term incompletely acknowledge or understand the limitations and biases of various definitions.
Voter Turnout In Early Twentieth-Century Political Science
An overview of the history of voter turnout can clarify how the term’s usage reflects several developments within the discipline of political science. The first development occurred in the 1920s at the University of Chicago, where political scientists Charles Merriam and Harold Gosnell broke from the discipline’s conventional legal-historical approach to initiate a new way to study voting. In 1924, they published their survey-based findings on the conditions effecting nonvoting behaviors within the eligible electorate. In several subsequent works, Gosnell followed others who concluded that voters were vanishing from active participation in elections, and he completed a novel experimental test designed to measure the positive effect of direct mail solicitations on getting out the vote, a common term for voter turnout even today. In 1930, Gosnell also authored Why Europe Votes, which included his analysis of voting in several European nations. Others subsequently extended the new field opened by Merriam and Gosnell, adopting increasingly sophisticated quantitative and survey-based methods aimed at accounting for relative differences in voter participation and addressing questions of why and how individuals or groups vote in particular elections.
New survey-based research programs on voting and elections emerged at Columbia University and the University of Michigan in the 1940s. These paralleled an increase in the use of polling techniques by private groups, the media, and political parties and candidates interested in winning elections. Not surprisingly given the immediacy of the data collected, almost all voter behavior and electoral studies completed during the 1940s and 1950s lacked a longer term comparative historical perspective. This deficiency was barely noticed because these research programs yielded new and robust insights concerning the contextual and psychological conditions closely associated with observed voting behaviors and aggregate electoral results. In particular, political scientists discovered that higher levels of education, income, socioeconomic status, age, and partisanship correlate strongly with higher rates of electoral participation—a set of findings that have been confirmed repeatedly ever since.
Before the establishment of the Columbia and Michigan research programs, there were several noteworthy efforts to compile historical data sets of election results; these were then analyzed for absolute and relative changes in voting and the electorate. In Voting Behavior in the United States (1935), Charles H. Titus’s time-series analysis of voting from 1880 to 1932 led him to reject the so-called vanishing voter thesis, establishing it as an artifact of a limited temporal horizon and the biased definition of voter turnout when measured as a ratio of voters to the eligible electorate. Titus, moreover, extended his historical perspective to include the identification of what he referred to as the “rhythmic patterns” of voting behavior and partisan alignment across time. In the 1940s and 1950s, Titus’s correction of the vanishing voter thesis was forgotten under the burgeoning survey-based voter behavior literature and several other studies of the relationship between voting and democracy—all of which the discipline and the public found more compelling. For example, Hermens concluded in 1941 that electoral democracy facilitated Hitler’s rise to power; Schumpeter, in 1947, concluded that elites, not voters, controlled large-scale democracies; and in 1957 Downs formally demonstrated that it was irrational for any individual to vote given the improbability of casting the decisive vote for a winning candidate.
Approaches In The Late Twentieth And Early Twenty-First Centuries
In the wake of these disciplinary developments, the American Political Science Review published Walter Dean Burnham’s “The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe” in 1965. This article reshaped the discourse on voter turnout in three significant ways. First, Burnham’s work effectively rehistoricized the study of U.S. elections by compiling a new set of voting turnout ratios across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Burnham concluded that voting in the nineteenth century regularly reached 80 to 90 percent of the eligible electorate before declining dramatically throughout the twentieth century—a trend that others observed in
subsequent U.S. elections and in other electoral democracies. Second, Burnham’s thesis explicitly associated these voter turnout statistics with the systemic characteristics of the American political order; in particular, he identified the long-term turnout decline as an indicator of the conversion of a once populist American democracy into a broad-based oligarchy captured by the interests of industrial capitalism. Third, Burnham’s data and conclusions about declining voter turnout contradicted the central findings of the survey-based voter behavior literature, which expected higher rates of participation given twentieth-century socioeconomic advances in the U.S. population. In 1978, Richard A. Brody famously identified this contradiction as the “puzzle of participation.”
Contemporary political science research continues to employ quantitative methods, survey-based data, and cross-national perspectives to analyze the composition and behavior of the electorate in recent elections. A significant portion of this work also focuses on solving the puzzling combination of historically declining rates of voting with other findings that suggest the opposite should be occurring. Most studies accept the modern vanishing voter thesis first advanced by Burnham in 1965, explaining the turnout decline with quantitative analyses of new electoral data or newly emphasized individual and contextual variables. Others, however, contest the voter decline thesis in part or altogether, proposing alternative measurements, normative grounds, or explanations of the history and significance of voter participation in democratic elections.
- Brody, Richard A. “The Puzzle of Political Participation in America.” In The New American Political System, edited by Anthony King, 287–324. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1978.
- Burnham, Walter Dean. “The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe.” American Political Science Review 59, no. 1 (1965): 7–28.
- “The Turnout Problem.” In Elections American Style, edited by A. James Reichley, 97–133.Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1987.
- Franklin, Mark. Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Gosnell, Harold F. Getting out the Vote: An Experiment in the Stimulation of Voting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927.
- Green, Donald P., and Alan S. Gerber. Get out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout, 2nd ed.Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.
- Kromkowski, Charles. “Democracy and Electoral Participation in Comparative-Historical and Cross-National Perspective: A New Conceptualization and Evaluation of Voting in Advanced and Developing Democracies, 1776–2002.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, August 2003.
- McDonald, Michael P., and Samuel Popkin. “The Myth of the Vanishing Voter.” American Political Science Review 95, no. 4 (2001): 963–974.
- Merriam, Charles, and Harold F. Gosnell. Non-voting: Causes and Methods of Control. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924.
- Niemi, Richard G., and Herbert F.Weisberg. Controversies in Voting Behavior, 4th ed.Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001.
- Pzrezorski, Adam, and John Sprague. “Concepts in Search of Explicit Formulation: A Study in Measurement.” Midwest Journal of Political Science 15, no. 2 (1971): 183–218.
- Rusk, Jerrold G., and John J. Stucker. “Measuring Patterns of Electoral Participation in the United States,” Micropolitics 3, no. 4 (1984): 465–498.
- Schlesinger, Arthur M., and Erik M. Eriksson. “The Vanishing Voter.” The New Republic, October 15, 1924, 162–167.
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