Most modern presidential elections in the United States have a voter turnout rate of between 50 and 60 percent. Yet voter turnout rates have fluctuated throughout the country’s history based on who has the right to vote, whether people who have the right to vote are actually able to vote and how high voters perceive the stakes of an election to be. In the earliest U.S. presidential elections, only a very narrow field of Americans were able to cast votes. The 2020 election saw the biggest voter turnout rate in over a century.
Highest Voter Turnout Rate Ever in 1870s
The lowest voter turnout rate for a presidential race was in 1792, when electors from 15 states voted unanimously to re-elect George Washington for a second term. The states varied in how they selected electors to vote for the president. In states where electors were chosen by popular vote, the only people who were eligible to vote were white men, and, in some cases, only property-owning white men. That year, a paltry 6.3 percent of that narrow field of eligible voters, or roughly 28,000 people, voted.
The highest voter turnout rate for a presidential race was in 1876, when 82.6 percent of eligible voters (white and Black men) cast ballots in the race between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Despite the high turnout—Black men had recently won the right to vote with the 15th Amendment—Southern Democrats were actively suppressing that right.
The outgoing president was Republican Ulysses S. Grant, a former Union general who had successfully broken up the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, but whose administration was filled with scandals. During this era, northern voters and southern Black male voters generally favored the Republican Party, while southern white men, angered at Reconstruction reforms that had given political power to Black men, favored the Democratic Party.
Historian Eric Foner has said that without voter suppression, Republican candidate Hayes probably would have easily won the popular vote. Instead, election returns showed that he’d lost the popular vote with 47.9 percent compared to Tilden’s 50.9 percent, but that he’d won the Electoral College by just one elector.
When Democrats contested 19 of Hayes’ electoral votes, the U.S. Congress got involved. Hayes was able to keep these electors and become president by promising Democrats that he would end Reconstruction. After Hayes ended Reconstruction in 1877, southern states immediately began passing laws preventing Black men from voting and constructing a system of segregation that would become known as Jim Crow.
Voter Turnout Rates Decrease in the 20th Century
Every presidential election with a voter turnout rate of 80 percent or higher took place in the mid- to late-19th century. They include William Henry Harrison’s 1840 election, Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 election, James A. Garfield’s 1880 election and Benjamin Harrison’s 1888 election. These were years of intense partisan divide, especially over slavery and civil rights for Black Americans.
In the 20th century, voter turnout peaked during the very first presidential election. In 1900, the year that Republican William McKinley won reelection, the voter turnout was 73.7 percent. After that, the turnout rate never rose above 65.7 percent, which was the rate for the 1908 election in which Republican William Howard Taft won. This downward trend is at least partly due to the fact that even as the pool of eligible voters increased during the 20th century, new rules and restrictions made voting increasingly difficult for many of them.
In 1920, white women all over the country and Black women who lived in northern states won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. Yet in the south, white Americans prevented Black women from exercising their constitutional right to vote the same way they’d been preventing Black men from doing so. In addition, the 19th Amendment didn’t address the fact that Asian and Native Americans couldn’t vote.
Over the next several decades, activists sought to change this. By the 1960s, Black, Asian and Native Americans won a series of federal and state battles securing their right to vote. In 1961, residents of Washington, D.C., won the right to vote for president with the 23rd Amendment; and in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the federal voting age from 21 to 18, allowing more young people to cast their ballots in presidential elections.
In 2013, a U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had given the federal government the power to review voting laws and practices in states with a history of voter suppression. As a result, many states began introducing practices like purging voters from voting rolls, closing polling places and passing voter ID laws.
Despite these changes, the share of the voting-eligible population that cast ballots in the subsequent 2016 election reached 60.2 percent—the third highest since 1972. That compares with 58.6 percent of eligible voters who turned out in 2012, but it’s under the 62.2 percent who voted in 2008 when Barack Obama won his first term in office.