Updated May 10, 2023
See description below.
Inquires can be directed to Jeff at: Quidam at Thirty-Thousand.org
Thirty-Thousand.org, a small nonprofit & nonpartisan organization, is looking for researchers or scholars who are developing (or interested in developing) credible estimates of the number of ELIGIBLE VOTERS in the U.S. going back to the beginning of the republic, starting with the first federal elections in 1788-89, and then biennially after that (for all federal elections).
Having such estimates would be very helpful in understanding how the expansion of suffrage (expanded democratization) over the decades correlates with other societal and political factors. In addition, credible eligible voter data would provide an essential context (denominator) for voter turnout data, with respect to actually understanding turnout trends over time.
At the highest level, relative to the earliest decades, this analysis would start simply by having the number of voting age free men. Even that is problematic as, for example, the census of 1790 delineates between those under 16 years old, versus those 16 and older. Therefore, to estimate the number who were of legal voting age, some quantitative assumptions would have to be made relative to the likely age demographics. Next, these estimates would have to decremented to approximate those restrictions which further disenfranchised this demographic, such as property ownership, religious requirements, etc. And, over time, the estimates of eligible voters would then be increased to reflect the effect of those constitutional amendments that expanded suffrage (i.e., 15, 19, 23, 24, 26).
Preferably these estimates would be by state, but even national totals would be very helpful.
The primary focus of the initial phase is to build a sound conceptual framework using plausible assumptions which can, in time, be fine-tuned based on deeper analysis.
Hopefully there are others who are interested in developing these estimates. If so, perhaps there could be some kind of collaboration in order to do so.
It’s quite surprising that these estimates do not already exist! When I began seeking this information years ago, I thought for sure it was simply sitting somewhere that I had not yet looked. I never dreamed that such basic data would be so elusive.
Listed below are miscellaneous resources that have been (or could be) used to possibly help inform this project.
So far, in doing this research, the following books have been acquired:
- A Statistical History of the American Electorate (Jerrold G. Rusk). This book appears to have been developed from the data being sought, so I contacted its author, who is now 82, and long ago disposed of his notes and calculations.
- Voter Turnout in the United States 1788-2009 (Curtis Gans)
- United States Congressional Elections, 1788-1997 (Michael Dubin)
- The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989 (Kenneth Martis)
Voting Rights Milestones in America: A Timeline
15th Amendment – extending suffrage to the former slaves
19th Amendment – extending suffrage to women (several states extended suffrage before that)
Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. by State
Wikipedia women’s suffrage:
23rd Amendment – DC
24th Amendment – eliminated poll tax
26th Amendment – reduced voting age to 18 (prior to that, four states had a minimum voting age below 21: Georgia, Kentucky, Alaska and Hawaii per Wiki article
Michael McDonald at the US Elections Project has current information related to this subject. However, he reports that he “cannot estimate the pre-1980 state eligible populations due to data availability”.
From Census.gov: “We started collecting voter data in the 1960s and have produced publications and tables with estimates of voters and often the voting eligible population since then, including tables for more recent elections. For these estimates, from the Current Population Survey, we specifically look at the citizen voting-age population as those eligible to vote.”
Voting estimates are available for the CPS voting supplement starting in the 1960s:
Voting and Registration Tables
In later years the tables are in excel files, but if you go back far enough all of the tables that are available are in PDFs. If you select 1960, you'll find a set of such tables. For instance, this table which contains estimates of the voting age population in both 1960 and 1964:
Suggestion from Emory Professor Doner (Emeritus):
Look through the articles in various journals, including those focusing on American political development, those specializing in electoral studies, and in the history of southern politics (e.g. Georgia Historical Review) and specific pre-Civil War elections. For example, the following analysis of the 1789 presidential election, Presidential Election of 1789: A Resource Guide, has several tantalizing sources. Also A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns, 1787-1825, searchable collection of election returns from 1787 to 1825. The data were compiled by Philip Lampi. The American Antiquarian Society and Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives have mounted it online with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Voting-Age Population (VAP) estimates developed by Walter Dean Burnham (available from Thirty-Thousand.org).
Book: Presidential ballots, 1836-1892 by Walter Dean Burnham
Suggestions provided by the Library of Congress via email:
Voting and Registration Tables
https://www.census.gov/topics/public-se ... ables.html
National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789-Present
Statistical Abstracts Series
https://www.census.gov/library/publicat ... racts.html
Gans, Curtis. Voter turnout in the United States, 1788-2009 / Curtis Gans ; with Matthew Mulling. Washington, D.C. : CQ Press, 2011.
Rusk, Jerrold G., 1941- A statistical history of the American electorate / Jerrold G. Rusk. Washington, DC : CQ Press, 2001.
University of Michigan
Institute for Social Research
P.O. Box 1248
Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1248