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McDonald and Popkin: The myth of the vanishing voter

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

McDonald and Popkin. 2001. The myth of the vanishing voter. APSR 95.


The many studies worried about declining voter turnout have suffered from a significat methodological flaw. When this flaw is corrected, turnout seems to less of a problem.

Place in the Literature

The literature has worried that turnout has declined considerably in the past thirty years. To calculate turnout, they estimate the number of ballots cast and divide it by the Census's estimate of the voting-age population (VAP).

The correction

The VAP is subject to distortions that vary be region and over time. As such, it creates misleading, false trends. The VAP includes groups that are ineligible to vote (felons, noncitizens, mentally incapable) and excludes groups that are eligible to vote (soldiers overseas, etc). Replacing the VAP with an estimate of voting-eligible population (VEP) changes the trends considerably.

The real trends

With the corrected data, it appears that voting surged in the 50s, peaked, and declined. By 1971, though, it had stopped changing. There have been no national or non-southern trends since 1971. The South has had a slight, marginally significant increasing in turnout in 1971. Thus, the puzzle we should investigate is not why turnout has steadily declined (it hasn't), but rather why it surged briefly in the 1950s.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


McDonald, Michael (author)Popkin, Samuel (author)American PoliticsTurnoutVotingParticipation

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