(October 2000) There has been a fairly steady decline in voter participation over the last 40 years. Data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), for example, indicate that the percentage of the voting-age population casting ballots declined from 69 percent in 1964 to an all-time low of 54 percent in 1996. According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), however, just 49 percent of the voting-age population participated in the 1996 election.

There are three main reasons for the discrepancy between these two sources of data on voter turnout. First, the FEC compares the total number of votes cast to the total number of people in the population, whereas the CPS does not include in its sample either the active-duty military personnel or people living in institutions such as prisons and jails, college dormitories, hospitals, and nursing homes. People in institutions, in particular, may be less likely than the noninstitutional population to vote. Second, the CPS directly asks a sample of people whether they voted, and voting — like other socially approved activities — tends to be over-reported in such surveys. Third, the FEC measures the total number of votes cast for president, excluding ballots that were declared invalid or that were cast for lower-level offices (for example, for senator or representative) but not for president.

In spite of the discrepancy, data from both sources show a long-term decline in voter turnout, with only two interruptions. In 1984, the CPS reported that voter participation had risen slightly, to 60 percent. The CPS rate in the 1992 election was even higher — 61 percent, the highest turnout since the 1972 election after the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon out of office in 1974. (The latter development may have been due in part to the presence of a strong third-party challenge by Ross Perot.) In neither case, however, was the increase sustained. The declines in voter participation occurred among all segments of the population, regardless of gender, race and Hispanic origin, age, or region.

Most people who do not vote do not register beforehand — a prerequisite to vote in every state except North Dakota. In 1996, nearly three-fourths of the 89 million adults who did not cast ballots had not registered.

Among adults who do register but fail to vote, lack of time is the reason cited most — perhaps a symptom of Americans’ increasingly busy lives. In 1996, more than 22 percent of nonvoting registrants said that they were either too busy or were unable to get time off from work or school — up from just 8 percent in 1980. Other commonly noted reasons for not voting in the last election were a lack of interest in the elections, the onset of illness or an emergency, a dislike of the candidates, and out-of-town business. These reasons vary among certain subgroups, however. For example, nearly half of the nonvoting older population cited illness or an emergency as their reason.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau



Citations

U.S. Census Bureau, “Voter Participation in the National Election, November 1964,” Current Population Reports P20-143 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965): tables 1 and 2; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1968,” Current Population Reports P20-192 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969): tables 1 and 2; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1972,” Current Population Reports P20-253 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973): table 1; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1976,” Current Population Reports P20-322 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978): table 2; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1980,” Current Population Reports P20-370 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982): table 2; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1984,” Current Population Reports P20-405 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986): table 2; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1988,” Current Population Reports P20-440 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989): table 2; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1992,” Current Population Reports P20-466 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993): table 2; and “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1996 (Detailed Tables),” Current Population Reports P20-504u: table 2. Accessed online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/voting.html on August 1, 2000.