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How Has Voter Turnout in US Presidential Elections Changed over Time?

Voter turnout based on voting age population (VAP) — the percentage of people who are of legal voting age who actually vote — for United States presidential elections has stayed around 50 to 60 percent since 1948. The highest VAP voter turnout during that time was in 1960, when about 63 percent of the VAP turned out to vote and John F. Kennedy was elected president.

More facts about voter turnout:

  • If voter turnout is calculated in terms of the percentage of registered voters that vote, rather than by the VAP, then U.S. voter turnout has consistently been about 85 percent or above in every year since 1964 except for 2008, when Barack Obama was elected. Voter turnout based on the percentage of registered voters who voted was about 70 percent in that election — about 16 percent lower than that of the 2004 election, in which George W. Bush was re-elected — because the number of registered voters rose much more than the number of people who voted.

  • The lowest VAP turnouts in U.S. presidential elections since 1828 were in 1920, when about 49.2 percent of the VAP voted and Warren G. Harding was elected; in 1924, when about 48.9 percent of the VAP voted and Calvin Coolidge was re-elected; and in 1988, when about 50.15 percent of the VAP voted and George H.W. Bush was elected.

  • The highest U.S. voter turnout based on VAP since 1828 was in 1840, when more than 80 percent of the VAP actually voted. That was the election when William Henry Harrison was elected over Martin van Buren. Harrison died on his 32nd day in office. The 1828 election was unique because the four men running for president and vice president were all U.S. presidents during their lifetime: William Henry Harrison; his vice president, John Tyler; the incumbent, Martin Van Buren; and James Polk, who got one vote to be the vice president along with Harrison, although he was not Harrison's running mate.

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