Erstwhile presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talked a lot about engaging Americans who typically don’t vote. There are a lot of them. In 2012, only 54 percent of voting-age Americans went to the polls.
In a 1999 paper, Bill Winders argued that the question of whether Americans vote has a lot to do with class conflict.
Winders looked at the voter turnout from 1840 to 1996. Among eligible voters (which, notably, excluded black men and all women in the early decades of the analysis), 70 to 83 percent voted in every presidential election from 1840 to 1900. Winders wrote that, during this period, party politics functioned as entertainment, with parades, political clubs, and picnics designed to engage even relatively apolitical Americans. Parties mobilized voters around ethnicity and religion, but not around class.
This changed around the turn of the century, when agrarian populism, labor strikes, and other class-based upheavals began to threaten politically dominant upper-class groups. In the South, elites responded with infamous measures like poll taxes and literacy tests. These measures were most pointedly targeted at black voters, but poor whites were affected as well. In Louisiana, for example, a literacy requirement and registration law reduced black turnout by 90 percent and white turnout by 60 percent. Overall, turnout in the South plummeted from 75 percent in 1876 to 19 percent in 1924.
In the North, meanwhile, progressives—largely from the upper and middle classes—pushed to reduce the influence of party machines. Like Southern elites, they created literacy tests and other barriers to voting, reducing the ability of parties to mobilize voters.
Between 1896 and 1924, nationwide turnout fell from 80 percent to 49 percent.
The Depression era brought new mass mobilizations by farmers and workers. Unlike at the start of the century, these movements found allies in the upper classes. Outside the South, liberal industrialists and the lower classes banded together against conservatives who wanted to keep government spending and regulation down. In northern cities, the Democratic Party and its union allies mobilized working-class voters, many of whom identified with the party of the New Deal. Outside the South, turnout rose from 58 percent in 1924 to 73 percent in 1940.
In the South, a resurgence in voter turnout came later, driven partly by the Civil Rights movement, with its intense focus on voting rights. In the region, turnout rose from 25 percent in 1948 to 52 percent in 1968.
Between the 1960s and the 1990s, when Winders wrote, turnout dropped again, hitting 49 percent in 1996. He argued that this partly reflects a decline in conflict among various elites as the Southern economy has come to look more like the rest of the country. Factions of the upper class no longer had to harness mass movements in their fights against each other. At the same time, mass mobilizations by civil rights activists and unions had declined.
Since 1996, movements like Occupy Wall Street and Fight for Fifteen have reinvigorated class-based protest. But it remains to be seen whether more people will get out to the polls.