Monday, November 5, 2012

A History of Voting and Not Voting

Updated November 7, 2012

As the American election is finally over, I wanted to post on an issue that is of particular importance to democracy; voter turnout.  One of the tenets of democracy is the right of individuals to vote for their chosen political party or candidate and, when people choose to stay at home rather than vote, it speaks volumes about the state of our political system.

Let's open by looking at voter turnout at every presidential election held in the United States since 1828 noting that for the 2012 election, I have used a preliminary turnout number of 54.2 percent (112.63 million votes cast out of 207.643 million eligible voters):

Now, let's look at voter turnout at Canada's federal elections since Confederation in 1867:

Lastly, let's look at voter turnout at the United Kingdom's national elections since 1832:

Voter turnout in the United States peaked at 81.8 percent in 1876 and stayed above or very close to the 70 percent mark until the 1904 election.  Over the period between 1828 and 2008, voter turnout at American federal elections has averaged 63.9 percent, hitting a peak of 81.8 percent in 1876 and a low of 48.9 percent in 1924.  The graph shows a rather precipitous drop in voter turnout as the 19th century turned into the 20th century, hitting a low of 48.9 percent in 1924.  You can see that during the 20th century, voting levels have never returned to the levels experienced in the previous century, hitting a high of only 63.3 percent in 1952.  In the last two decades, voter turnout at the last five elections has averaged only 53.8 percent, down 17.9 percentage points from an average of 71.6 percent over the same five election years one century earlier when most voters walked, rode horses or took horse-drawn carriages to vote.  Notice as well that, in the latest election cycle for all three nations, the American turnout lags Canada's by 6.9 percentage points and the United Kingdom's by 10.9 percentage points or 20.1 percent!

By comparison to the average American voter turnout of 63.7 percent since 1828, Canadian voter turnout has averaged 70.7 percent since 1867 and United Kingdom voter turnout has averaged 71.9 percent since 1832.  Canada's voter turnout peaked at 79.4 percent in 1958 and hit a low of 58.8 percent in 2008.  While many pundits blamed the drop on "voter burnout" because this was the third election in just over four years, in fact, Canada has a history of holding multiple elections over very short periods of time, in fact, between 1962 and 1968, four elections were held with voter turnout ranging from 74.8 percent to 79.2 percent.  The United Kingdom's voter turnout peaked at a whopping 86.8 percent in 1910 and fell to a modern-day low of 59.4 percent in 2001.  The United Kingdom has seen voter turnout drop in its last three elections held in 2001, 2005 and 2010, however, elections held during the period from 1922 to 1997 all had turnout rates better than 70 percent, well above both Canada and the United States.

In the 2008 United States federal election, a total of 186,983,927 American voters were registered and there were 212,720,027 eligible voters in total.  The number of registered voters was up 6.9 percent from just two years earlier.    According to the FEC, President Obama received 69,498,516 votes (52.93 percent of the popular vote) and John McCain received 59,948,323 votes (45.65 percent of the popular vote).  This means that, of the total eligible voters, the current president received only 32.7 percent of potential votes compared to only 28.2 percent for his opponent.  To compare, in Canada's 2011 election, there were 24,257,592 electors listed; of these, Canada's current Prime Minister received a total of 5,835,270 votes or a meagre 24.1 percent of the total potential votes.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines democracy as:

1.) government by the people especially the rule of the majority.
2.) a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. (my bold)

These voter turnout statistics show that voters are increasingly choosing not to exercise their right to vote.  This is not surprising given that politicians are their own worst enemies resulting in an increasingly cynical public.  Politicians today seek to divide us and, by dividing us, they conquer us.  While at least some of them enter public service with the best of intentions, they are quite quickly absorbed by the "Borg" (resistance is futile, you will be assimilated) that is the political system today.  What we, as voters, must do is hold them to a higher standard.  All jurisdictions must implement a legislative recall initiative as is currently in place in British Columbia where a populist movement saw the tossing out of a very unpopular tax grab.  Eighteen states through the United States also have recall legislation for state officials, unfortunately, at the federal level, no such provision exists; in the case of the United States, the Constitution does not provide or authorize the recall of Senators, Representatives, the President or Vice President.  My suspicion is, that until such legislation is imposed, voters will becoming more and more cynical about democracy and the value of voting, resulting in power being held in the hands of fewer and fewer elites.


  1. Its not surprising of the low voter turnout in the U.S. mainly because of the bullshit the Republicans are doing to prevent potential Democratic voters to go to the polls. In Canada that is unheard of and if the things that the Republicans are doing to prevent voters from voting we'd have their asses in jail. In canada that stuff is a Federal Crime. Why don't you guys do something about that shit????

  2. Both an excellent and frightening article. We all want democracy but not all of us are doing our fair share.

    1. Self-selection among citizens in the decision to vote doesn't bother me at all. It's better than forcing uninterested people to vote.

      On a different point, @PJ, I disagree with national recall efforts. Look at how threats of impeachment have been used, and then tell me it wouldn't be used for partisan advantage.

  3. @Sonny - In Canada they have a well defined identification requirement. The idea that showing an ID to vote is preventing "potential Democratic voters" from going to the polls would be laughed out of town. They would want to know whether you are really foolish enough to buy that sort of argument or if you really believe Democrats are too incompetent to be able to show an ID.

  4. Obviously, the Electoral College is the largest challenge to full voting. As the joke went, Obama won the presidency of OHIO. When the rest of the country realizes the election really comes down to a handful of states AND NOT THE POPULAR VOTE, people are just not going to vote in those uncontested states.