Electing the President: Who Actually Votes?





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  • Background

    Ever wonder why presidential candidates talk so much about issues like Medicare that affect people in the upper age brackets? It's because older people vote at much higher rates than others. In 2008 70 percent of eligible voters 65 and older voted. Only 49 percent of young voters (age 18 to 24) cast a ballot. If you were a politician which group's concerns would you most care about?

    Buried in the statistics are other interesting findings.

    Year in year out voter turnout by non-Hispanic whites is higher than any other group. In 2008 66 percent voted. Asians and Hispanics voted at the same rate as young people, who traditionally turn out in deplorably low numbers. In 2008 it was just 49 percent--less than a majority. (That was higher though than in 2004, when just 47 percent of young people bothered to vote).

    One group dramatically increased turnout in 2008. The opportunity to vote for the first African-American nominee of a major party prompted 65 percent of blacks to vote--the highest percentage in history. Normally, blacks vote at a far lower rate than whites.

    In 2008 131 million people voted in the presidential election. The eligible voting population was 206 million.

    As in past election cycles, people with less education and lower income voted at a lower rate than people with college degrees and higher incomes.

    As one website reports: "The voting rate among citizens living in families with annual incomes of $50,000 or more was 77 percent, compared with 48 percent for citizens living in families with incomes under $20,000."

    What about gender? Women vote in slightly higher numbers than men. Married people vote in substantially higher numbers than people who are single.

    Bottom Line: Civics leaders often bemoan the low turn-out rates of voters. But when you look at the data you see that low voting rates are not a problem across-the-board. Non-Hispanic whites with college educations and annual incomes over $50,000 vote at high rates. So the challenge for society is increasing the rates for the groups that don't participate in elections.

    What the Left Says

    Liberals bemoan low turn-out rates--with good reason. They draw support from the groups with some of the lowest rates: the poor and minorities. If those demographics voted at the same rate as whites with college degrees Democrats would be the majority party.

    Barack Obama has had a particularly difficult time drawing the support of whites with college educations.

    What the Right Says

    Conservatives also bemoan low turn-out rates. But the low rates tend to work to the benefit of the Republican Party. Republicans can count on the support of a majority of non-Hispanic white voters at the presidential level and they vote at a higher level than other groups. The last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

    Historical Background

    In the beginning -- that is, after the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 -- only white males voted. And in many states, they had to own property. Limiting the suffrage to people who owned property sounds undemocratic to our ears. But the thinking was that people who worked for others for a living were unable to exercise independence, leaving them susceptible to pressure to vote the way their employer instructed. It was also believed that only voters with property had a strong enough stake in the community to exercise their voting rights responsibly. But property qualifications quickly began to fall. According to Alexander Keyssar's comprehensive history of the suffrage, The Right to Vote:

    "Delaware eliminated its property requirement in 1792, and Maryland followed a decade later. Massachusetts, despite the eloquent opposition of [John] Adams and Daniel Webster, abolished its freehold or estate qualification in 1821; New York acted in the same year. Virginia was the last state to insist on a real property qualification in all elections, clinging to a modified (and extraordinarily complex) freehold law until 1850. And North Carolina finally eliminated its property qualification for senatorial elections in the mid-1850s."

    By the 1820s the suffrage was extended to the masses of white male citizens, giving rise to Jacksonian democracy. This changed our politics forever. From then on presidents would be selected from a pool of candidates who demonstrated popular appear rather than solely on account of a stellar resume.

    After the Civil War blacks in theory won the right to vote but only under Reconstruction were they allowed to vote in large numbers. Once Reconstruction ended, the vast majority of blacks in the South lost the right to vote for a hundred years.

    This two-steps forward, two steps back history of voting is at odds with the theme of progress and is largely forgotten. But it shaped American politics for generations.

    The first national pressure to give women the right to vote came in 1848 when a convention of women in Seneca Falls, New York demanded that the suffrage be extended to women. As abolitionism grew in the 1850s leaders of women's suffrage grew hopeful that the fight to free blacks would enhance their fight to win the vote. It did not. Abolitionists in general declined to link the two causes. Blacks won the right to vote before women (though in a few states women were permitted to vote in state elections).

    Women finally won the national right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. But women did not vote differently than their husbands, as critics had feared. Not until the 1980s did a significant gap develop in the voting patterns of men and women. (Women tiled toward the Democratic Party.)

    In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed that guaranteed blacks the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended literacy tests that had blocked blacks from voting and authorized the Justice Department to force state and local governments in the South to enroll black voters.

    As the 1960s wore on there were two further developments affecting the suffrage. First, the Supreme Court ruled that the states no longer could maintain congressional districts of unequal populations that had allowed thinly populated rural districts to send more members to Congress than heavily populated urban districts. Second, the Nixon administration backed the extension of the suffrage to people aged eighteen and over in response to critics who argued that if an eighteen year old was old enough to fight and die in Vietnam he was old enough to vote.

    Topics for Discussion

  • Why do people with college educations vote at such a higher rate (78 percent) than those who only completed high school (40 percent)?
  • Why do a majority of young people not vote?
  • How does the pool of voters affect our politics and government policies?

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