Every Eligible Voter Counts: Correctly Measuring American Turnout Rates

Michael P. McDonald
Michael P. McDonald Former Brookings Expert, Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Florida

September 9, 2004

All signs point to 2004 as a vintage year for democracy in the United States. Interest in the campaign and candidates is up. More people are following the election. People see distinct differences between the candidates on the issues. The election is perceived to be close, not only nationally, but also in a greater number of battleground states than in 2000. Many people have already committed to voting, and absentee ballot applications are running at record levels.

This year will undoubtedly set a record for the total number of Americans who vote. If the 2004 turnout rate matches the 1992 turnout rate, as many polling organizations predict when they define “likely voters,” then approximately 122 million Americans will vote, an 17 million increase from the record 2000 presidential turnout of 105 million.

When measured correctly, voter turnout is not declining, as many people believe. This misunderstanding arises because the population ineligible to vote is increasing. Remarkably, the ineligible population commonly is included in the calculation of voter turnout rates, which creates false impressions about historical trends and inaccurate comparisons among the states.

Looking back at turnout rates post-World War II, we can understand why observers have wrongly concluded that American voters are becoming more apathetic. If we calculate turnout rates for everyone of voting age in the United States, there is an unmistakable downward trend since the 1960s, interrupted only occasionally. If we instead base the rates on those eligible to vote, no decline is apparent since 1972. As I will explain, the way in which the turnout rate is calculated can have a substantial impact on our understanding of Americans’ level of electoral participation.