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January 19, 2004

Myth of Declining Voter Turnout

TAPPED has a post pooh-poohing the idea that Howard Dean, or any Democratic candidate, can succeed by expanding voter turnout.

The key evidence-- the massive decline in voter turnout in recent decades. Citing a Wall Street Journal story, Tapped quotes:

The rate of voter turnout has declined steadily in the four decades since 65.4% of those eligible cast ballots in John F. Kennedy's 1960 victory over Richard M. Nixon. In the Bush-Gore contest of 2000, 53.8% of Americans voted.
Sounds like a devastating number.

Except for one thing-- this oft repeated stat ignores the 26th Amendment of the Constitution, the one that gave 18-20 year olds the right to vote.

Since younger voters turnout in smaller numbers, passing this amendment immediately dropped turnout as a percentage of the now-expanded voting population. In 1972, the first year with the Amendment in effect, overall turnout dropped to 55.21%.

The worst Presidential year turnout was in the 1988 election, a low of 50.11%, while turnout in 1992 jumped back to 55.09%.

So since 1972, turnout has swung up and down 5%, a healthy margin to worry about-- add in the new possibilities of mobilization pioneered by Dean and the new union strategies for mobilization this year and turnout strategies look extremely attractive, especially compared to the uncertainties of appealing to the last couple of percentages of the "uncommitted."

It isn't that swing voters should be ignored, but given the polarization in the electorate, spending all your effort appealing to the maybe 10% of the population really in the swing category, compared to the 50% of the population that doesn't vote just seems stupid.

BTW I just saw CNN repeating the 1960 versus 2000 turnout comparison canard.

Actually, on Martin Luther King's birthday, this argument is especially disgusting, since blacks in the South, for example, turnout in far larger numbers today than they ever could back in 1960.

Update: Centrist Coalition has a response here. As I said, I'm all for going after swing voters-- I've said that dumping issues like gun control in favor of a stronger economic justice message is the best way to go after lower-income whites who have trended more Republican in some states. I just reject the "reaching out to nonvoters is useless" message that the mainstream tends to harp on.

Posted by Nathan at January 19, 2004 06:50 PM