By Nancy K. Matthis | Sunday, February 24th, 2008 at 3:19 am
One common assumption about democracy is that the choice of an elected leader will represent the preference of the majority of the people governed. Let’s take a look at the last half-century of presidential elections to see how often this has been true in the United States …… never.
|Year||Registered Voters||Voter Turnout||Winner Total||Popular Support|
|1960||63.5%||Kennedy – 49.7%||31.5%|
|1964||64.7%||62.0%||Johnson – 60.6%||37.6%|
|1968||70.1%||62.8%||Nixon – 43.4%||27.3%|
|1972||71.5%||57.1%||Nixon – 60.3%||34.4%|
|1976||71.7%||55.7%||Carter – 50.1%||27.9%|
|1980||70.8%||54.2%||Reagan – 50.8%||27.5%|
|1984||74.0%||55.2%||Reagan – 58.8%||32.5%|
|1988||72.8%||52.8%||Bush #1 – 53.4%||28.2%|
|1992||74.5%||58.1%||Clinton – 43.0%||25.0%|
|1996||78.5%||51.8%||Clinton – 49.2%||25.5%|
|2000||66.7%||57.0%||Bush #2 – 47.9%||27.3%|
|2004||70.1%||62.0%||Bush #2 – 51%||31.6%|
From the total residential and expatriate population of the United States, those eligible to vote are that subset meeting the following qualifications:
- person is of voting age
- person is a legal citizen, by birth or naturalization
- person is not institutionalized, or has not had franchise revoked due to crime
From the pool of eligible voters, only a percentage make the effort to establish their bona fides with their local precinct and place their authorized signature in the voting records, becoming registered voters.
During an election, not all of the registered voters participate. The voter turnout fluctuates from year to year, but is usually higher during presidential election years than for those in-between years featuring only state or local races.
Authentic democracy occurs when two conditions are met:
- 100% of eligible citizens register to vote
- 100% of registered voters participate in an election
The table above shows, in effect, the degree to which the United States election process differs from real democracy due to civic laziness and voter apathy.
An excellent research project is ongoing at George Mason University (GMU), Fairfax, Virginia under the auspices of Dr. Michael McDonald, Associate Professor, Department of Public and International Affairs. The United States Elections Project gives a detailed summary of relevant data for the years 1980 through 2006. More importantly, it shows that the apparent decline in voter participation reported by the United States Census Bureau results from their analytical methods, rather than actual voting patterns. Two important definitions from the GMU project:
VAP — The voting-age population is defined by the Bureau of the Census as everyone residing in the United States, age 18 and older. Before 1971, the voting-age population was age 21 and older.
VEP — The voting-eligible population is the population that is eligible to vote. Counted among the voting-age population are persons who are ineligible to vote, such as non-citizens, felons (depending on state law), and mentally incapacitated persons. Not counted are persons in the military or civilians living overseas.
The voting age population totals used in our study for the years 1960 and 1964 are from the U.S. Census Bureau report for those two years. The VAP totals used for the years 1968 through 2004 are from the U.S. Census Bureau Report Registration Rates in Presidential Election Years.
Prior to 1980 the difference between the voting age population and the number of eligible voters in any given presidential election year was less than one or two percent of the total population. Since separate official VEP numbers are not available for those years, we used VAP data as the basis of calculation. However, as the discrepancy began to grow rapidly with the onslaught of illegal immigration, we used the available VEP data from 1980 onward.
The eligible voter totals (in millions) for the years 1980 through 2004 used in our computations are from the GMU research. The registration totals (in millions) for the years 1964 through 1996 used in our computations are from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The registration totals compiled by the FEC for the year 1960 do not include sixteen states, and so we did not make a computation for that year. The voter turnout totals (in millions) for the years 1960 through 1996 are also from the FEC. Both the registration totals and the voter turnout totals for the years 2000 and 2004 are from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The percent of eligible voters who did their civic duty and registered for each presidential election is computed by dividing the registration toal by the eligible voter total (or the VAP total prior to 1980). The percent of turnout is computed by dividing the turnout total by the eligible voter total.
The Winner Total percentages from 1960 through 2000 are taken from President Elect, the unofficial website of the United States Electoral College. They differ only slightly from the numbers given on another popular reference page, History Central, which is also often quoted.
The popular support for every president-elect represents the percentage of eligible voters who actuallly wanted that candidate to be president. It is computed by multiplying the percentage turnout by the percentage of votes garnered by the winner. In every case it is considerably less than half of the electorate. Contrary to media spin, the least popular president-elect in the last half-century was Bill Clinton, who was favored by only one quarter of the electorate in both of his successful bids for the office.
Nancy Matthis is the publisher and executive editor of the weblog format news magazine and multimedia outlet American Daughter Media Center.
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Tags: Democracy, election, Elections, electorate, registered voters, registration, The Myth of Democracy
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