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Why Voter Turnout Is So Low in the United States

Alexander Keyssar

From the very founding of the United States, elites have worked to disenfranchise and suppress voters — because they know a mobilized electorate of workers and poor people would transform the country.

Voters casts their ballots at ChiArts High School on March 15, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty

Interview by
Adele Oltman

In recent years, states around the country have passed numerous laws restricting the right to vote. But this effort to contract the franchise — a fundamental assault on political democracy — is not unprecedented. Since the founding of the United States, elites have used their power to disenfranchise and suppress the vote of those they’d rather not see at the ballot box.

In the following interview, historian Alexander Keyssar, author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, discusses the long history the franchise fights in the United States with historian Adele Oltman. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


AO

We like to think of our country as exceptional compared to other Western democracies — even during the Trump era. Trump, according to the exceptionalism thesis, is subverting who we are as a country, especially our “values.” In your book you write about suffrage restrictions — who gets to vote and who doesn’t — beginning in the Revolutionary era. These restrictions seem to eclipse this narrative of American values.

AK

At the end of the eighteenth century, in the Revolutionary period, part of what they were struggling with in state legislatures — more so than in Philadelphia with the Constitutional Convention — was whether voting should be a right or not. Was it a right or was it a privilege? British traditions, which had been changing, characterized it as a privilege. A lot of people on this side of the Atlantic agreed with that.

But others thought that it was a right. And then the question became, if it’s a right, who has the right? If it’s a natural right, does it inhere in everybody? Including, in women, or black people, or even children? There’s a whole struggle over this.

In effect, one could look at the evolution of suffrage requirements and the evolution of American democracy over time as a long transition from looking at voting as a privilege to voting as a right.

AO

What about poor people? Where do they fit into the evolution of suffrage and American democracy? At the time, they were called “paupers.”

AK

Paupers became viewed as a particular category of poor people: people who were not able to take care of themselves — they were dependent on others or the state, or municipal charities.

There were two arguments that were made. The polite argument, the “correct” one, was that we can’t allow poor people to vote because they are dependent on others and could be manipulated. A rich person who employed them could manipulate their vote — they could be bribed, etc. The common phrasing was that they have no will of their own. They’re just a mob that can be manipulated.

At other moments the argument appeared that if you let them vote, poor people would get together, and they would threaten property. I argued in my book that [the Founders believed] the poor would have too much will of their own. I think that’s an apprehension that’s lurking there all the time.

The big decision that was made in Philadelphia was that the federal government was not really going to deal with voting requirements — they would leave it to the individual states. In effect, they punted.

AO

The standard narrative about the removal of property and tax-paying requirements for white men was that it occurred during the Jacksonian era, in the 1830s. Is that right?

AK

It actually starts earlier, at the end of the teens, around 1819–1820. There are several things going on. One is ideological change: the belief in what we call democratic values is stronger in 1820 than in 1795. There’s no denying that.

But there is something else going on, which is important and has been undervalued: the War of 1812. The states call up militias to fight in the war, and the militiamen are together for days, weeks, and months at a time. A lot of them are not enfranchised because they don’t meet the property requirements. And they start saying things like, why should we be required to go off and fight an enemy if we don’t have a voice in the government?

They start circulating petitions demanding the right to vote. They even threaten to go home if they don’t get some commitments to get the franchise. A similar thing happened during the American Revolution but it’s more dramatic in the War of 1812. That sets things in motion in a number of key states, including Massachusetts and New York. Then it’s reinforced by ideology: people are saying property requirements to vote are really just wrong.

The other thing that shows up at various local levels is if you have somebody who is renting or leasing property for a long time and has worked on it for fifteen or twenty years, why should the owner of the property get the right to vote and not the person who works on the land?

AO

The point about the War of 1812 is analogous to the Vietnam War, which was when they lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.

AK

Absolutely. Every major expansion of the franchise has occurred during wartime or just in the wake of a war.

AO

One of the things I found startling when I read your book was your discussion of disenfranchisement in the South after Reconstruction and during the rise of Jim Crow. Every student of American history knows about the poll taxes and the literacy clauses. But you show that the grandfather clause was first introduced in Massachusetts in 1857 in order to keep immigrants away from the ballot box.

AK

What the grandfather clause was designed to do was to create an exemption. The way it worked in Massachusetts was that you had to pass a literacy test in order to vote. But you did not have to pass a literacy test if your grandfather had voted, or if he had been eligible to vote.

In Massachusetts that was a way of protecting the native born and discriminating against immigrants. In the South it became a way of protecting certain categories of whites who might not otherwise met the requirements while making it perfectly permissible to keep blacks from voting because their grandfathers had not been able to vote because they were slaves.

AO

The “certain categories of white people” would have been poor white people. This is interesting, because this was when the Populists were challenging the rising class of agrarian and industrial capitalists and railroad investors and so forth.

AK

When we look at Jim Crow and disenfranchisement at the end of the nineteenth century, we often tend to view it in racial terms. Race is certainly of immense importance. But there’s a broader pattern of class apprehensions going on at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Populists for a while are contributing to that. The Populists are a mixture of farmers — some of them are tenant farmers — and small property owners. But the Populists are just one of many insurgent movements in different parts of the country that are challenging the rights of capitalists, like the Knights of Labor — a very powerful political organization in the 1880s. There were cities all over the North and a few in the South that had Knights of Labor governments. There were Socialist city councils in a lot of places.

The late nineteenth century, meaning from about the mid-1870s on, is a period of challenge to the domination of industrial capitalism. It’s in that context that efforts are made to not only suppress the vote of blacks and some poor whites in the South, but also to do the same to immigrant workers in the North.

Let me make a distinction here between disenfranchising people and voter suppression (or “vote suppression,” the term was used in the late nineteenth century). Disenfranchisement is saying “you absolutely cannot vote” — “You are female, you cannot vote.” “You are black, you cannot vote.” The Fifteenth Amendment said you cannot do that for race. But suppression is what you do politically when you would like to disenfranchise but can’t do it legally.

AO

You write that in New York City in 1906 elections were held on the Sabbath because so many Socialists were observant Jews. They were getting elected to the city council so New York City suppressed the vote.

AK

Right. They suppress the vote by putting up obstacles. This is what we’re seeing today as well. The analogies between the late nineteenth century and today are really very strong. Not only attacks on people of color, but the procedural obstacles. [In some counties] you have to bring your citizenship papers, proof of residence. A lot of it is technically updated but recycled versions of the same efforts that were put into place in the late nineteenth century.

AO

In your book you quote Justice Thurgood Marshall saying that the Supreme Court decision Smith v. Allwright in 1944 was more consequential than the more well-known Brown v. Board decision. Talk about the white primary in the South beginning in the 1890s. How did it come to be, and how did it work?

AK

The white primary emerges because the other methods of disenfranchisement of blacks in the South were inefficient and difficult to administer. So, you could have a literacy test, but African Americans could learn to read and thus pass literacy tests. You could have these crazy obstacles like saying people had to bring receipts showing that they’d paid their poll taxes for the last eight years. But obstacles could be overcome, and it was also a nuisance and created a lot of tension to be administering these rules.

By the late nineteenth century, the Republican Party in the South had ceased to exist. The only game in town is the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party is a private organization and thus the Fifteenth Amendment does not apply to democratic primaries any more than it would apply to an election that was to determine who would be on the board of a country club.

So, the white primary is much more efficient. You don’t have to administer tests. You don’t have to be checking receipts. You don’t have to go over paperwork. You can only vote in the Democratic Primary if you’re white. Remarkably, the Supreme Court upholds that a couple of times.

AO

That’s amazing! They kept it for nearly fifty years!

AK

[laughing] Right! It was not until 1944, not coincidentally, it was in the middle of a war, World War II, that the Supreme Court overturned it.

AO

Yes. The United States wanted African Americans to fight for democracy.

Today we have the lowest turnout of eligible voters of any of the Western democracies. In the 2016 only 28.5 percent of eligible voters turned out in the Democratic and Republican primaries. And in the general elections for president, the number of eligible voters who turn out rarely exceeds 60 percent.

AK

There are a number of things that contribute to this low turnout. Presidential elections have their own particular set of issues. The electoral college, for one thing. Most people know that their vote doesn’t matter anyway so they don’t vote.

The deeper problem is the one you pointed to: turnout in primaries and turnout in off-year elections. I was actually pleasantly surprised in 2018 that turnout went up to 53 percent. The norm in off-year elections has been about 35 percent turnout for decades. A lot of that has been formed, for one thing, by the lack of competition in many areas so that the outcome is considered preordained.

Since World War II, the American people have, in some broad way, gone through a long period of thinking that it didn’t matter a whole lot who was in office. The economy was prosperous. Among poor people — or relatively poor people and relatively less educated people — voting didn’t seem to matter much. Voter turnout is not just an aggregate number. The figures that strike me most are the ones that show that turnout is correlated with education and income. The better educated you are, the more well off you are, the more likely you are to vote. Turnout is extremely low among poor people.

We’re in a period of transition. The move of the Republican Party to the extreme right in the last twenty years is shifting that sense of whether it matters or not. The 2018 elections may have been the first fruits of that. But even still, here I am talking about the glorious turnout somewhere in the 50 percent range. [laughs] Our turnout is extremely low and most people don’t bother, and the major political parties, until quite recently, have collaborated and participated in keeping turnout low.

AO

Could you elaborate on that?

AK

If you’re a manager of a political party or a political campaign, at some level you don’t care about whether turnout is high or low. You care about whether the outcome is predictable and manageable. For many years, the strategy of the Democratic Party — the party you would have expected to be ideologically focused on producing more turnout among poor people — was to turn out selected groups of middle-class voters. The target was soccer moms. It was not poor workers. It was some minorities, but they were not really targeted.

That was a strategic decision that was made by the leaders of the Democratic Party in the eighties and nineties about who to target and where to devote resources. The strategy might be changing. It’s not clear. But it’s changing only after some very significant losses.

AO

This is a defensive change. And there are conflicts within the Democratic Party about which direction the party should take.

AK

Yes. One can see it even in the 2016 election. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who ran the Democratic National Committee, was about using the old strategy. That fight is still going on within the Democratic Party. It’s also that the left within the Democratic Party is obviously being pressured by groups from outside the party.

The focus of the press is on the programmatic views of the leading candidates for president. But there are strategic corollaries to those statements that are also very much at stake. To take the most vivid example, Bernie’s position has always been, move left and increase turnout. And that is one combination of strategy and policy positions that are available.

AO

We may be in a transition phase, as you say. But the Democratic Party still actively suppresses voter turnout, especially among working and poor people. They use registration laws. You discuss the history of these laws in your book.

AK

If you think back to the archetypal New England town in the eighteenth century, everybody knows who shows up to vote. By the time you get to cities like Boston and New York in the 1850s, it’s a different story. There is a completely comprehensible managerial set of reasons to adopt registration rules. The issue is once you have them, then the details become extremely important because they can either facilitate registration or make it harder.

What you see in the late nineteenth century in the North are registration rules combined with residency rules that are aimed at the working class to keep them from voting. For example, the requirement that you had to vote annually and that you had to go down to an office and show proof of residence. That’s a pretty onerous requirement.

Those registration laws become — and in some sense many of them are done explicitly — a way of winnowing the electorate and of moving people outside of the polity. If you take a big historical view of this, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that turnout starts to drop at the end of the nineteenth century, when all of these registration laws are implemented.

AO

This is the same period that African Americans are disenfranchised in the South. It seems to me that that’s an important point — that the effects are not limited to region or race.

It’s like what Bernie says: they’re trying to divide us up against each other. He’s talking about the current president, but one gets the sense that he’s also talking about the establishment Democrats. That’s exactly what was happening in the late nineteenth century. We can learn from that period about how to resist such divisions that are only going to benefit the wealthiest.

AK

The insights from this history are invaluable. Understanding, for example, if you don’t take certain steps, if you let yourself to be divided, you’re going to remain powerless for a long period of time.

Two things happened in the late nineteenth century in the South that we can learn from. One was that poor white southerners did not maintain the alliances that they had had with blacks. But the other thing, more importantly, was that the North abandoned the South. There’s a little-known piece of legislation, that you probably do know about, called the Federal Elections Bill of 1890.

AO

The Force Bill.

AK

Right! The Federal Elections Bill of 1890 included a set of federal government enforcements of the Fifteenth Amendment, which says that you cannot deny people the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It included a number of things that were explicitly illegal; and it would have sent federal marshals into the South to enforce it. It very narrowly failed to pass in Congress.

AO

Recently, the question of felon disenfranchisement has been in the news. You include the history of felon disenfranchisement in the United States as part of the broader story of excluding the poor from exercising the franchise.

AK

There is a long tradition in English law and practice that existed in the United States until before the Civil War. It’s not just a late nineteenth century Southern operation. It’s a tradition that exists at a time when voting is thought of as a privilege and not as a right. Once voting is come to be understood as a right, a modern conception of voting, then to take it away is a much more dramatic thing to do.

Felon disenfranchisement is used as a way of suppressing the vote at the margins. Until the second half of the twentieth century, it was thought of as a minor mechanism, in part because the size of the prison population and the proportion of the population that had ever been convicted of a felony was so much smaller. Felon disenfranchisement was one of many mechanisms used to keep southern African Americans from voting, and it also existed in the North, where its major targets included the Irish in some states.

But what we’re talking about now, since the early 1970s, is such a dramatic explosion in scale and impact.