If you look at the numbers for turnout in U.S. presidential elections, from data compiled by the Census Bureau and the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara, it is tempting to search for correlations with the highs and lows of our politics and society.
The worst turnout by percentage of the voting age population, going back to 1828, comes in 1924, when incumbent Calvin Coolidge won election in his own right, with a dismal 48.9%. We could infer that people just weren’t that excited by Coolidge, a Republican lawyer from New England, which is not much of a stretch, but what it misses is that people were not looking for excitement in 1924 so much as confidence after the scandals that beset the administration of Coolidge’s predecessor, Warren G. Harding (for whose election in 1920 turnout was scarcely better, although he did have Coolidge on his ticket).
Yet in the historically low turnout year, Coolidge beat his Democratic rival, John W. Davis, with 54% of the popular vote to about 30%.
Davis may deserve his obscurity. He was a progressive, having served President Woodrow Wilson as an ambassador and solicitor general, but a Democratic progressive then also meant, in Davis’s case, someone from West Virginia whose Sunday School teacher recalled had “a noble face even when small”; who opposed women’s suffrage, federal child-labor laws and anti-lynching legislation; and who was a foe of Prohibition, on the grounds it (unlike lynching) was a violation of personal liberty.
Davis only won his party’s nomination on the 103rd ballot, at the longest continuous political convention in U.S. history. Democrats went into the campaign exhausted. When Davis squared off with Coolidge, a reticent, small-government conservative, with unemployment falling and real wages stable, no one thought it was the election of a lifetime.
The presidential election with the highest turnout since 1828 was a more fraught business: the 1876 contest between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, which drew 81.8% of eligible voters. (In what was last touted as the most important presidential election of our lifetimes, in 2016, turnout was 55.5%.) Hayes, who eventually won the election, lost the popular vote to Tilden, 47.9% to 50.9%. What drew so many voters that year?
The country at its centennial was in the middle of a depression after the Panic of 1873, with rising unemployment, a contraction so sharp it was known as the Great Depression until 1929 rolled around. And Reconstruction was on the ballot.
Tilden, New York’s governor, was a wealthy, reform-minded corporate lawyer. He was not looking to end Reconstruction, but many of his supporters, Southern Democrats, were. Hayes, Ohio’s governor, had been a Union general and a firm abolitionist. He was brave, and dull.
Republicans disqualified Democratic votes in three Southern states because of fraud and intimidation at the polls. Democrats said it would be Tilden or war. The outgoing president, Ulysses S. Grant, surrounded the Capitol with troops. The deadlock was only broken when leaders from both parties brokered a deal on the eve of the inauguration, in March 1877: Democrats would withdraw their objections to Hayes if Republicans would agree to remove federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina and thus abandon efforts to secure and enforce the rights of Black citizens – in effect reversing the outcome of the Civil War.
It was infamous, and shameful. Hayes was inaugurated privately. And it still goes to show that while high turnout is no guarantee of anything good, we may not, after all, just have been in the worst election cycle in the history of the country.