I keep hearing that less than 50% of Americans voted in 2016. Untrue. 55% of the voting age population (VAP) voted, or 137 million out of 251 million. When you include only the voting eligible population (VEP), which excludes non-citizens, mostly, and felons in some states, that total drops to 231 million meaning that 60% of all the population eligible to vote did vote. That’s not a bad number.
The number you commonly see, though, is the voting age population (VAP) number, which comes to 55% this year. That is actually a higher than normal number. It’s lower than 2008, but higher than 2012. In fact, since 1972 only five elections have had more voters. The 60% turnout hasn’t been reached since 1968, the last of five times since 1932 it went above 60, though it never got hit 63% (and it hasn’t been above 70% since 1900). On the other hand, it has only dropped below 50% three times: 1920, 1924 and 1996.
The highest turnout streak was from 1952 to 1968. Only one of those five elections dropped below 60%. The New Deal-WW2 generation (dubbed The Greatest Generation) voted in very high numbers. And the kids who were born in the low birth rate 1932-45 years (labeled, sadly, The Silent Generation) voted in high numbers too. Together they made the Ike-JFK-LBJ years the high point in voter turnout. Goldwater was buried in 1964 in a turnout of nearly 62%. Indeed, it was only when the FDR voters began dying off that the Reagan Revolution’s assault on FDR’s social programs (as dreamed of by Goldwater’s followers twenty years earlier) went into high gear, as they were its most fervent supporters. Their kids, not so much.
You can see when you look at the numbers that when the vote was lowered to 18 from 21, in the 1972 election, the turn out plunged a few points (the 18-20 years olds that year voted for Nixon, too.) Not many of those enfranchised kids bothered to vote. And turn out remained low as baby boomers flooded the electorate, bringing down the average in presidential elections to 52%. It wasn’t until Gen X and Millennials came flooding in that the numbers began to rise into the mid 50 percentiles again. They vote more than Boomers did at their age. But unfortunately for them, Boomers have finally hit that 55 and up age where we vote like crazy.