With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Electing the President: Voter Apathy

Worth Reading

  • HNN Hot Topics: Election 2012
  • HNN Hot Topics: Electing Presidents
  • HNN Hot Topics: The Electoral College
  • Should We Take Away the Voting Rights of 18 Year Olds?
  • Background

    Voter apathy is mostly a modern disease. Early in our history voter turnout in presidential elections was high. In the late nineteenth century it was common for more than 70 percent of the voting age population to cast a ballot. Some years the figure rose as high as 81 percent. Those figures declined somewhat in the first half of the twentieth century. But even in the 1950s turnout exceeded 60 percent, a sign of a healthy democracy. (See this chart for details.) Then, beginning at the end of the 1960s turnout rates began plummeting. In 1960 63 percent of voters voted. By 1980 the figure was down to 53 percent. In 1988 we hit rock bottom: 50 percent. Since then the numbers have bounced around a bit, but we've never approached the high numbers recorded earlier in our history.

    A sign of voter apathy is the indifference of voters to civics. A majority of voters can't name the three branches of government, don't know that there are 100 United States senators, and don't realize that the president's appointments to the Supreme Court are subject to a vote by the Senate.

    A majority of voters cannot name their own member of Congress or their two US senators. Nor can a majority tell you who the chief justice of the Supreme Court is.

    Ignorance of civics has been widely confirmed by surveys given Americans by researchers at the University of Michigan since the 1950s. It was more easily justified in earlier times when fewer Americans received proper schooling. In 1940 6 in 10 Americans did not graduate from the 8th grade. But today most Americans have attended college. Yet the surveys indicate they are generally as ignorant as earlier generations and by some criteria even more ignorant. More Americans in the 1950s were able to say what divided the two major parties than they were in the 1970s.

    What the Left Says

    Both liberals and conservatives decry voter apathy. But they focus on different aspects of the problem. Liberals concentrate on voter turnout. They complain that conservatives try to keep people from voting by establishing stricter requirements for registration, thereby driving down the participation of voters most likely to support Democrats. (The poor and minorities usually vote in lower numbers than people drawn from other demographics.) Many states in conservative hands have recently enacted laws requiring voters to produce more substantial identification than was common in the past. Conservatives say that this is necessary to protect the integrity of elections. Liberals charge that it's a solution in search of a nonexistent problem. They contend there is little evidence of election fraud.

    What the Right Says

    Conservatives traditionally feared the power of the people and worried that they would be unwise in their judgments. Since Ronald Reagan conservatives have celebrated the wisdom of the people, blaming bad government on liberals and the media. Voter apathy? It's usually framed in the context of their larger fight with liberals. It makes sense to conservatives that voters are apathetic given the disfunction of government. Respect for government will increase when its powers are limited.

    Historical Background

    What accounts for the apathy of Americans? When life was simpler in the nineteenth century there were few activities suited to leisure. Politics offered one of the chief forms of community entertainment. At the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates tens of thousands turned out to watch. They brought their lunches with them and sat for hours as the candidates debated. Today Americans can choose from so many leisure activities that they no longer feel the need to turn to politics for entertainment.

    Why do so few bother to vote? One primary factor has been the decline of party bosses. When the bosses ran things people voted in higher numbers at the behest of the bosses, who arranged in return to provide services and jobs to them and their families and neighbors. An unintended consequence of reforms to limit the power of bosses by giving government employees guaranteed civil service protections, was to break the direct connection voters felt with their government.

    Trust in government has declined in tandem with voter turnout, leading many critics to conclude there is probably a connection. It makes sense. People who don't believe in their politicians probably feel less inclined to take part in politics. Instead, they turn away in disgust. Several critical developments of the last half century have contributed to high levels of distrust: Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-contra. But the issue is terribly complicated. Robert Samuelson, the Washington Post columnist, wrote a book arguing that the inflation of the 1970s was mainly to blame for mistrust. As the money in voters' pockets came to be worth less and less, they grew suspicious and lost faith in their leaders. Others contend that trust in our institutions declined when government started making large promises it couldn't keep.

    One factor everybody agrees is critical to the decline in voter turnout was the passage of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution giving 18 year olds the right to vote. While young people initially voted in high numbers, turnout declined dramatically soon thereafter, partly in response to the end of the Vietnam War and the threat of the draft. Today, the demographic that votes the least is young people.

    Topics for Discussion

  • Should voting be required?
  • Should voters have to take a test to make sure they understand civics?
  • What steps could be taken to encourage young people to vote?