Voting in America

The formal requirements for voting in the United States are simple. Anyone who is a citizen of the United States of America and at least eighteen years of age is eligible to vote. Additionally, every state but one (North Dakota) requires voters to register to vote a reasonable number of days before the election (usually thirty days). The primary objective of the registration requirement is to prevent fraudulent voting. A secondary effect of requiring voters to register, however, is that only those who are interested and attentive are likely to vote. A month or more before election day, a voter must find out where to register and then go there and register or he or she will not be able to vote on election day. Registering to vote, however, was made much easier with the passage of the "Motor Voter" Act of 1993, which allows citizens to register to vote when they renew their driver's licenses or visit local, state or national government offices for other purposes.

Who Can Vote?

The right to vote is sometimes referred to as "suffrage." The right of suffrage in the United States is currently enjoyed by all citizens over the age of eighteen, as noted. However, this has not always been the case. In the early years of the republic, the eligible electorate consisted primarily of white, male, property owners. States gradually relaxed property-ownership requirements until all males of twenty-one years or more were allowed to vote. After the Civil War, the right to vote was extended to all citizens, regardless of race, by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Women's Suffrage Movement succeeded with the 19th Amendment and the extension of the right to vote to women (some states already allowed women to vote, but the Amendment required all states to do so). The 23rd Amendment allotted electoral votes to the District of Columbia, thereby giving its residents the right to vote in presidential elections. And the 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, granted the right to vote to every citizen who is eighteen years or older.

Simply because voting rights are extended by the Constitution, however, does not mean they are exercised. Most notably, black voters did not fully enjoy the right to vote for many years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment because of intimidation, discrimination and tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes (see "The Civil Rights Movement"). Moreover, many people who have the right to vote simply choose not to exercise it. Millions of eligible voters have not even registered to vote.

When do we vote?

Americans have more opportunities to vote than the citizens of any other nation. In addition to congressional elections every two years and presidential elections ever four, Americans have the opportunity to vote for state governors, state legislators, county commissioners, mayors, city counselors, state and local judges and a wide variety of other officials. Not only do voters have the ability to select the winner on election day, but they also have the opportunity to vote in primary elections to decide which candidates will represent each political party in the final contest. Several states also hold "runoff" elections in cases where no candidate gains a majority of the votes in a primary election. Given the number of offices that are popularly elected and the system of primaries, runoffs and general elections and the fact that elections are often scheduled at different times of the year and in alternating years, it is not unusual for voters to have several opportunities to vote each year.

Who Votes?

The table below includes registration and voting data for various groups of voters. In the "off-years," such as 1994 when there is not a presidential election, turnout is generally lower than presidential election years. Turnout in 1996 was nearly ten percentage points higher than it was in 1994. As the data in the table also indicates, women are slightly more likely than men to be registered and to vote, whites are more likely to vote than are minorities, and people who are employed are more likely to vote than those who are unemployed. The greatest impact on levels of registration and voter turnout, however, appears to be education.

Voter Registration and Turnout


All Voters
Some High School
High School Graduate
Some College or Associate's Degree
Bachelor's Degree
Advanced Degree

Why Don't We Vote More?

Perhaps the most striking figures in the table on the left are the total turnout percentages for 1994 and 1996. Why do only about half of eligible voters bother to turn out on election day? There are several possible explanations. The following are some commonly offered explanations for non-voting:

Whatever their reason, the choice not to vote simply makes the votes of those who show up relatively more important. 

Influences on Vote Choices

When voters cast their votes on election day, they are influenced by a variety of factors. The candidates and their personalities, the issues, and the state of the economy all have an impact on who the voters choose. By far the most significant predictor of how an individual will vote, however, is the political party he or she prefers.

Partisan Identification

Most voters develop an attachment to a political party early in life (see "Political Socialization"), an attachment that generally becomes stronger as they grow older.1 Identification with a political party serves an important purpose for voters who have limited time to spend studying political issues and candidates. By selecting a party that most closely mirrors their own political and ideological preferences, voters can use the party affiliation of political candidates as a "cue" to help them decide who to vote for in the absence of other, more specific information about the candidates. The use of such cues or decision-making shortcuts is not unique to voting--people use them in dozens of different contexts each day. Party identification is simply a way for busy people to simplify an otherwise complex and time-consuming decision.

2004 Congressional Vote by Partisan Identification


Every election year, the American National Election Study asks a sample of voters the following question: "Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?" In the chart, those who answer "Independent" but admit to leaning toward a party are grouped with those who identify with a party in the first place. See the paragraph below for an explanation.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a surprisingly large number of survey respondents began identifying themselves as "Independent" instead of as either a Republican or a Democrat. Many people quickly assumed that this meant voters were behaving independently when they voted, that party affiliation was not as important as it once was in their decision-making on election day. However, careful analysis of public opinion data suggests that the notion that voters have abandoned party ID is a "myth." For example, a voter who identified him or herself as an "Independent" but admitted to "leaning" toward the Democratic Party is just as likely to vote for Democratic candidates as voters who identify themselves as Democrats.2 Indeed, in the table above, independent "leaners" are grouped with those who identified with a party. The numbers tell the story--more than eighty percent of those who identify with or lean toward a party voted for the presidential candidate of their preferred party. While some voters apparently prefer to portray themselves as "independent," most of them persist in basing their votes on party labels.

While partisan identification remains the most important predictor voting, it is less important today than it once was. Most notably voters have shown a much greater willingness to vote for candidates of the opposite party. The most powerful evidence of this is the dramatic increase in "split-ticket" voting, or the casting of votes for people of different parties, in the same election. (For example, a voter who splits his or her ticket might vote for the Republican presidential candidate but the Democratic Senate candidate.)

Political Party Alignments

Historically, a majority of voters have held stable preferences for one of the two major political parties for an extended period of time. When this occurs, the electorate and the party of preference are said to be in "alignment." While individual partisan preferences are slow to change, dramatic events, such at the Great Depression or the Vietnam War and Watergate, can cause large numbers of people to give up on their parties, at least temporarily, and vote for candidates of the other party. When voters move away from one party and support the other one in an election, the seeds of a realignment have been sewn. If the voters immediately return to their previously preferred party in the next election, the prior election is called a "deviating" election. However, if voters' preferences shift more permanently away from the old party toward the new one for several elections, the original election in which the shift occurred is recognized as a "realigning" election.

One of the most significant realigning elections in American political history, in terms of political party history and its effect on the nation, was the election of 1856, in which the modern-day Republican Party first contested elections and wrested control of the national government away from the Democrats by running against slavery. In that election, the Democratic Party became the party of the South and remained dominant there until 1994. The next major realignment occurred in 1896 when an era of healthy two-party competition came to an end with the Republicans again emerging as victors. The Republicans thoroughly dominated national politics until 1932 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Democrats across the nation were swept into office as the nation plunged deep into the Great Depression and collectively decided that it was time for the "New Deal" FDR promised.

From 1932 to 1994, the Democratic Party dominated the United States Congress. For nearly two-thirds of the Century, there was a Democratic majority in the House and in the Senate. The only exceptions were between 1947-1949 and 1953-1955 when the Republicans temporarily won majorities in both houses and between 1980 and 1986 when the Senate was controlled by the Republicans (Democrats remained the majority party in the House). During that same time period, however, Republicans have been in the White House just as often as Democrats, with Republicans dominating Presidential elections between 1952 and 1992.

Because neither political party has been able to win and maintain control of both the Congress and the Presidency in the period since World War II, many political scientists have argued that the American electorate, instead of being in alignment with one party or another, is in a state of dealignment. While many observers believed that the electorate had realigned itself toward the Republican Party, when it took control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in nearly forty years, the Republican's failure to win the presidential election in 1996 meant that the nation would remain without a clear political party alignment.