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The Myth of the Vanishing Voter

    • Published online: 19 April 2002

The apparent decline in voter participation in national elections since 1972 is an illusion created by using the Bureau of the Census estimate of the voting-age population as the denominator of the turnout rate. We construct a more accurate estimate of those eligible to vote, from 1948–2000, using government statistical series to adjust for ineligible but included groups, such as noncitizens and felons, and eligible but excluded groups, such as overseas citizens. We show that the ineligible population, not the nonvoting, has been increasing since 1972. During the 1960s the turnout rate trended downward both nationally and outside the South. Although the average turnout rates for presidential and congressional elections are lower since 1972 than during 1948–70, the only pattern since 1972 is an increased turnout rate in southern congressional elections. While the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, the lower turnout rate of young voters accounts for less than one-fourth of reduced voter participation.

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The authors thank Royce Crocker, Jennifer Day, Wally Doerge, and Heather McMullin for providing assistance in compiling the data. We also thank Micah Altman, Barry Burden, Walter Dean Burnham, Gary Jacobson, Gary King, Andy Kohut, Jonathan Nagler, Warren Mitofsky, Ray Wolfinger, and four anonymous referees for their insightful comments. Any errors remain our responsibility.
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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