Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Reappearing American Voter

We're almost at the end of the 2020 campaign season, and there will be plenty to say soon enough about the outcome. But before attention turns to the various winners and losers of this year's election, it's worth pausing to recognize something that's already clear: the national turnout rate is certain to be unusually high, perhaps even to historical levels. And that in itself is a remarkable fact.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a widespread concern about the declining proportion of electoral participation. Scholars and analysts spoke of the "disappearing American voter," connecting this trend to a worrisome decay of community engagement and social ties more generally (as in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Americans had become apathetic and cynical about politics, it was said, withdrawing from meaningful civic life to seek refuge in the comparatively mindless world of mass entertainment.

It's not likely that Americans today are less distrustful, or less obsessed with pop culture, than they were 25 or 30 years ago. But they are certainly voting more often. According to calculations by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, the national turnout rate in presidential elections hit a modern low point in 1996, when 52 percent of eligible citizens showed up to vote. By the 2008 election of Barack Obama, turnout had risen to 62 percent of eligible citizens, the highest share since 1968. Even the 2016 contest—widely viewed as an uninspiring choice between two unpopular candidates—resulted in a turnout rate of 60 percent, comparable to the rates in the supposedly more civically healthy decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

We have several reasons to believe that turnout will be even higher in 2020. The 2018 midterm elections produced a turnout of 50 percent, the highest rate in a non-presidential year since women were granted the franchise in 1920. Unusually high numbers of respondents are telling pollsters that they are closely following the current election, care about who wins, and intend to vote. And many have already voted: the volume of early and mail-in votes is far above that of any previous year (reflecting pandemic concerns and the promotion of alternative voting procedures by many state election officials), to the point that ballot totals in some states already rival or exceed the number cast four years ago even before Election Day itself. If the national turnout reaches 155 million voters, or 65 percent of the eligible electorate, it will be the highest participation rate in more than a century.

There are several plausible contributing factors to the post-1990s rise in turnout, but one surely is the growing perception that elections are very important—that it really matters to the direction of the country whether one candidate or the other becomes president. As it turned out, then, the cure for fading electoral participation was greater partisan polarization and more divisive candidacies. Perhaps this is a worthwhile reminder that in politics, the perceived problems of one era are often solved by the perceived problems of the next.