Four Questions: How America Has Voted Through History

As Americans prepare to head to the polls on Tuesday, Barbara Norrander, a professor in the University of Arizona's School of Government and Public Policy, responded to questions about America's voting history, turnout and trends.

Norrander joined the UA in 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president. Her research focuses on elections and public opinion.

Q: What have been some of the most significant changes in the physical ways Americans vote, and what kind of impact have these changes had?

A: Throughout most of the 19th century, political parties rather than state governments printed election ballots. Each party used a distinctive ballot, either in size or color of paper, and the party's ballot only listed its own candidates. With the party-printed ballot, there was no secret voting, as poll watchers could see which party's ballot a voter placed in the ballot box. States adopted the practice of printing ballots in the late 1880s into the 1890s. This led to a secret vote and an increase in split-ticket voting, as ballots now contained the names of candidates from all parties.

The 20th century saw a switch to voting machines. Mechanical-lever machines were widely used in major cities by the 1930s and continued to be the dominant method for voting into the 1960s. Computer punch cards were introduced in the 1960s. This was an inexpensive method for casting ballots, which could mean shorter voting lines as counties set up more voting stations at each precinct. The problem with punch-card voting came to the forefront in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, where election officials puzzled over whether to count ballots with hanging or dimpled chads. Both lever machines and punch-card machines have been discontinued, in part due to the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Today, the largest proportion of voters make their choices by bubbling in circles on a paper ballot that is read by an optical scanner, as occurs in Arizona. Touchscreen computers are the other major way votes are cast, and recent models include a paper backup. Oregon, Washington and Colorado conduct their elections entirely by mail, while two-thirds of Arizonans choose to vote by mail or at early voting sites. While alternative voting methods do not necessarily increase turnout in presidential elections, they may increase participation rates in traditionally lower-turnout elections, such as off-year congressional elections. 

Q: How has voter turnout in presidential elections fluctuated throughout history, and what are the biggest factors that influence turnout?

A: Turnout peaked in the late 1800s, a time before voter registration, which allowed ample opportunities for voter fraud. The Progressive Movement at the turn of the 20th century called for voter registration to clean up such fraud. However, requiring voters to register prior to the election reduced turnout levels, and voter registration laws were used in the South and the North to restrict access to voting.

The 1960s saw a liberalization of voter registration laws, while in recent years countervailing trends have appeared. Registering to vote has generally become easier, with most states having registration forms available on the internet and at motor vehicle offices. Twelve states allow registration at the polls on Election Day, and five have adopted automatic voter registration. On the other hand, Arizona and three other states require proof of citizenship to register to vote.     

Other factors that influence turnout rates are changes in suffrage laws. In the 1920s, turnout went down when women earned the right to vote but not all women partook of this new opportunity. Today, women vote at slightly higher rates than men. The expansion of voting rights to 18-year-olds in the 1970s also reduced turnout levels. Political events also matter. The New Deal realignment of the 1930s brought in a large number of new voters. The cynicism of the 1960s reduced turnout rates. In recent years, certain candidates have increased turnout. Turnout rose in 1992 as Ross Perot appealed to a group of previously disillusioned voters, and Barack Obama's candidacy in 2008 increased participation by African-Americans and younger voters.

Q: Many voters in this year's election have expressed that their decision to support a particular candidate is motivated more by a desire to "vote against" the opponent rather than a real desire to "vote for" their chosen candidate. Is this a different dynamic than we've seen in the past — and, if so, why?

A: Recently, political scientists and pollsters have documented a phenomenon that they call "negative partisanship." People haven't changed their minds about their own party, but they have become increasingly negative toward the opposition party. This has led to starkly different evaluations of presidents across the parties, as Democrats rate President Obama highly while Republicans rate him negatively, with the partisan pattern reversed in evaluations of President George W. Bush. The partisan divide in evaluations of President George H.W. Bush in the 1980s was only half as large as the cross-party differences in evaluations of our two most recent presidents. Explanations for this increase in partisan hostility center on an ideological sorting across party supporters, with conservatives moving into the Republican Party and liberals into the Democratic Party; a geographic divide, with Democrats residing in cities and Republicans more prevalent in suburbs and rural areas; and more partisan streams of information on radio, cable TV and the internet. Since 2000, candidates also have switched to more negative campaigning to mobilize their base rather than trying to appeal to a shrinking number of swing voters.

Q: Claims of election fraud and ballot tampering have made headlines in this election. Why has this happened, and what are the safeguards against fraud?

A: Most of the partisan battles in recent years are over access to the ballot. Republicans want to ensure that voter fraud does not occur, such that only U.S. citizens legally entitled to vote do so. Democrats counter that such efforts lead to voter suppression, as the poor, elderly and minorities often are unable to participate due to new restrictions or documentation requirements. This has led to political battles over voter IDs at the polls, curbing the ability of groups to engage in voter registration drives, limits on the ability of groups to collect mail-in ballots, and reductions in early voting sites.

One factor leading to more changes in election laws was the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. This decision invalidated the criteria in the Voting Rights Acts, which required counties with evidence of past discrimination to receive pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before changing voting laws. Counties that fell under the pre-clearance criteria were found mostly in Southern states but also included Arizona due to the 1970s expansion of the Voting Rights Act to include language minorities. Changes in voting laws can still be challenged after enactment on civil rights claims. For example, Arizona's recent change to make it a crime to return another person's mail-in ballot — except if you are a family member — is currently being challenged in federal court.

Election Day administration has generally improved, as states have instituted a variety of checks to ensure an accurate count. For example, in Arizona, before the election, the machines that scan and count the vote are tested for accuracy. Representatives from both parties take part in these pre-election checks. Poll workers are civic-minded citizens, with each trained to perform a specific task on Election Day to make the voting process run more smoothly. Both parties have a representative at every polling place to judge the accuracy and fairness of the process. Counting of ballots occurs in county offices, and anyone can watch the count live online at county election websites. After the election, Arizona has a mandatory hand recount of ballots cast in randomly selected precincts. Also after the election, vote-counting machines are retested to ensure that they have read ballots accurately.


Published Date: 

11/10/2016 - 10:39am