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The US voter turnout in 1896 was nearly 80%. By 1920, fewer than 50% of eligible voters turned out. What explains such an extreme drop in voter turnout in such a short period of time?

The US voter turnout in 1896 was nearly 80%. By 1920, fewer than 50% of eligible voters turned out. What explains such an extreme drop in voter turnout in such a short period of time?

The US voter turnout in 1896 was nearly 80%. By 1920, fewer than 50% of eligible voters turned out. What explains such an extreme drop in voter turnout in such a short period of time?

To start things off, it is important to keep in mind that turnout was consistently high in the late 1800s. If you look at this chart you can see that while 1876 was the highpoint, it wasn’t exactly an anomaly, and voter turnout was consistently high in the elections preceding it. It sticks out because, although the drop wasn’t immediately afterwards, it certainly preceded the continuing decline in voter turnout that would begin precipitously around 1900.

So why did voting decline in that period? Well, one of the most simple reasons (but not only, of course) to look at is Jim Crow. While under Reconstruction, black men (women being generally deprived of the vote) could, for the most part, go to the polls and exercise their right to vote, this began to change after Reconstruction was ended (not to say it didn’t happen before, just not as effectively), and the Redeemer governments worked through various means to disenfranchise vast swathes of voters in the American South. The effect of this can’t be underrated.

While in the 1876 election the South saw turnout roughly comparable to the rest of the country, at 75 percent, vote suppression methods such as literacy tests not to mention outright fraud, saw the turnout decline to 46 percent at the turn of the century. By the 1924 election, 19 percent of those theoretically eligible to vote were actually showing up at the polls.

And to be sure, while the primary target was black voters, many poorer, illiterate whites were disenfranchised too, despite “loopholes” to grandfather many of them in. In Louisiana, for instance, while 90 percent of black voters were barred from the polls, 60 percent of whites were as well. While Jim Crow should absolutely be understood as primarily a racial regime, it was quite oligarchical as well, with power being concentrated in the hands mostly of upper-class whites, who wanted to share it with no one.

This allows us to circle back somewhat though to look at 1876, and why it would be slightly above the average of the time though. During the Reconstruction era there were real efforts to mobilize poor voters of both races by the Radical Republicans. The example I’m most familiar with was that led by Mahone in Virginia whose Readjuster movement controlled the state for a brief time in the late 1870s-early ’80s, propelled by populist support from a coalition of black voters and poor whites.

Before Jim Crow laws took hold, we can see a lot of political agitation that struck at the white Democratic establishment in the South that was attempting to reclaim power, and that for a time they enjoyed some successes. The 1876 election in particular we can look at as a watershed, with both sides of the argument over Reconstruction seeing heavy stakes.

And of course Tilden won the popular vote, but lost anyways, as part of a deal that did end Reconstruction anyways. That cessation meant the evaporation of the Federal protections that allowed those insurgent political movements to compete on a roughly level playing field.

Changes weren’t immediate, and varied state by state – in Virginia for instance the Readjusters remained in power until 1883, when race riots days before the election were used by the Democrats to stoke voter fears – but it nevertheless meant that the suppression of the black vote and the poor white vote was able to start, a process which wasn’t immediate, and took time to take full effect.

So having looked a little at the election of 1876, and how it is a little higher than normal, but not too out of line for the period, this leads to another question… Why was 1872 a very noticeable anomaly at 71.3%, bounded in 1868 by a turnout of 78.1%, and of course 1876 at 81.8%?

Let’s start in 1868. That year, Grant ran against Horatio Seymour, a northern Democrat from New York, and won with a fairly respectable vote lead. He was especially buoyed by a strong performance in the South, winning many of the former Confederate states. How though? Well, an astute observer might notice that despite a much higher turnout percentage, the actual numbers of voters was lower, which would be somewhat counter-intuitive.

But, while I have been unable to find any sources which explain specifically how that number is calculated, if it is counting eligible voters against turnout, it seems likely that it is accepting the disenfranchisement of many white former rebels in the Southern states as legal and proper, and not counting them in the rolls of eligible voters. Certainly, it was the lack of their votes which, unable to balance out the newly enfranchised black vote in the South, helped to support his campaign down there.

This stands in comparison to the 1872 election, where those former rebels had since been reenfranchised, and thus counted in the rolls of eligible voters. But many voters nevertheless chose to stay home, why? Well, check out who was running! Grant was seeking reelection, but his opponent was Horace Greeley – a Republican, not a Democrat!

He was riding the Liberal Republican ticket, a splinter party from the Republicans, dissatisfied with Grant and much of what he had done in his first term. They lacked an entirely cohesive platform but generally stood, at the least, for playing nice with the South, and ending or softening the various Federal policies directed there. Greeley had been one of the most forceful voices in the Republican party for sectional reconciliation, and would win its nomination, but it wasn’t straight forward, and caused a good deal of acrimony.

At the Party Convention which nominated him, he had gone into is not as the favorite, beating out Charles Francis Adams after six ballots. There was enough bitter disagreements after his victory speech and declaration of platform that Adams supporters mostly just went back to the Grant camp, even if begrudgingly, unwilling to support the “turncoat and traitor”, representative of the lack of cohesion in the movement from the start.

As for the Democrats… they simply didn’t run a candidate. As newspaper editor Theodore Tilton wrote in aptly summing up the sentiment followed:

Since the Democratic party pledges itself to abide by the constitutional amendments […] and since it wants universal amnesty […] why not therefore let the better class of Democrats unite with the anti-Grant Republicans?

But the party was dominated by the Northern Democrats, and perhaps the platform was one they could support, but not necessarily one that made voters in the deep south happy, or at least enough so to nominally vote for a non-Democrat. In the end, it was a fairly tepid election, between two candidates who didn’t quite endear themselves well.

Grant waltzed to reelection with a 11.80 percent margin on the back of an electorate that perhaps wasn’t all in for him, but couldn’t get behind Greeley’s “motley” mix of appeals. What it did represent though was the growing dissatisfaction within some parts of the Republican party, who tired of Reconstruction which they were becoming convinced was a failure. It was, of course, a conflict that would underpin the next election, as already noted, but with an actual context between Republicans and Democrats, rather than divisions within the Republican Party alone.

Back to 1876 and moving forward again, Jim Crow didn’t come down in one fell swoop though, and again, even as ‘Redeemers’ claimed statehouses for white supremacy, it took some time to fully implement the exclusion of black voters (and, again, some poor whites too), and as late as 1896, as you note, turnout was still fairly high before taking a real plunge in 1900 and beyond, which well coincides with the point when Jim Crow was fully implace in the South, and soon after, the approval of such measures by the Supreme Court in Giles v. Harris.

To close out though, it ought to also be said that while Jim Crow was the hallmark of the American South, similar political tactics were not unknown throughout the country, just in different ways. In the Northern and Western states, turnout had dropped to 55 percent by the 1920 election, after all, and while it cannot be blamed on institutional barriers such as those in the South, responses to political mobilization by immigrants and lower-class groups outside the South by political elites saw attempts at “demobilizing what they judged to be the least desirable components of the electorate”.

They may not have been legally barring them from the polls in the same way that, say, South Carolina did, but through the late 1800s and early 20th century, they certainly were attempting to dissuade them from showing up.

In short, voter turnout in the United States was consistently fairly high up until the 1880s. The apex of turnout in 1876 isn’t exactly an anomaly if we look at the turnouts in votes around it, such as 1868 at 78.1%, or 1880 at 79.4%, but it does coincide with a period in American history rife with political upheaval, not just the American South, still on the tail end of Reconstruction, but nationwide, with Populist movements in the ascendant.

The end of the century, and the early 1900s, thus provide a stark contrast, as attempts both at institutional vote suppression, as well as simple ‘demobilization’ of cohorts of voters, lead to a decline in turnout nationwide.

1. Written by u/Georgy_K_Zhukov.
2. Brenner, Samuel. 2009. “‘Airbrushed Out of the Constitutional Canon’: The Evolving Evolution of Giles v. Harris, 1903-1925”. Michigan law review 107, (5) (03): 853-879.
3. Levin, Kevin M. 2005. “William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 113 (4): 502–3.
4. McPherson, James M. “Grant or Greeley? The Abolitionist Dilemma in the Election of 1872” The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Oct., 1965), pp. 43-61
5. Winders, Bill. 1999. “The roller coaster of class conflict: Class segments, mass mobilization, and voter turnout in the U.S., 1840-1996”. Social Forces 77, (3) (03): 833-862.
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