Turnout in Alexandria

Evidence from the poll books challenges our perception – and the insistence of textbooks – that political participation was much higher in the past than in the present. Indeed the prevailing textbook view is that the highest rates of political participation in America’s history came in the mid- nineteenth century. This conclusion, however, rests upon the decennial US census records and their enumeration, which from the 1850 census onwards named and provided socio-economic information for every free individual, and from 1870 all individuals, present when the enumeration occurred.
The problem is that nineteenth century census takers, who were patronage appointees with no particular interest in an accurate count of the population (there were no federal grants tied to a state’s or city’s population back then!), missed a significant proportion of the population. As many other historians have long noted, at the mid-point of the nineteenth century, the “missing” from the census manuscript could amount to upwards of twenty percent of those actually present (link to literature). The earlier one looks, the poorer is the census count.
Not surprisingly, the “missing” from the census records were those least well- connected to a place:  they were the transient, the poor, the new immigrants, and those who lived in boarding houses. The best-represented groups in nineteenth century censuses were those with the opposite characteristics:  long-term residents, the well-off, the long-established, and homeowners. They were also the groups from which the voting population was drawn. Perhaps predictably, 82 percent of the voters in 1859 were caught in the census of 1860 and even those who did not appear to have shared many of the social characteristics of the voter profile. 
The absence of individual registration records from the Commissioner of Revenue complicates the search for precise measures of turnout as does the absence of knowledge of who was actually in town on May 26, 1859, this being a time when absentee voting was unknown.
However, combining the individual level information from the poll books with other social inventories allows a far better picture of the voting-eligible population likely to have been in Alexandra for the 1859 election. Included are, of course, the voters (1406) and then, in descending order of probability, those whose records indicate both eligibility and presence. Using this approach we can calculate a range of possible turnout figures for the May 1859 election as a percentage of the eligible electorate.
·       Maximum: 58 percent
·       Minimum: 50 percent
A likely participation rate of 56 percent is certainly higher than the percentage of the eligible electorate estimated to have voted in the 2014 mid-terms (36 percent). This is a lower figure than the average mid-term turnout since the Second World War (43 percent). The likely Alexandria higher than the contemporary average, but is also an important corrective to the generally promoted estimates of turnout in mid-tem elections in the late 1850s of nearly 70 percent. Indeed the 56 percent estimate for Alexandria falls almost precisely halfway between the promoted historical figures and the average turnout in mid-terms since 1945.
Political participation was higher in the past than it is today (and, of course, limited to a smaller segment of the community), but it is important to have that differential correctly measured. Careful research provides us with a reliable measure of one of the most important concomitants of the enthusiasms and excitement associated with America’s age of open voting:  a significantly higher rate of political engagement.