The Rise and Decline of Turnout in Congressional Elections: Electoral Institutions, Competition, and Strategic Mobilization


  • I thank Walt Stone, Nathan Monroe, Jason Roberts, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. The data and code necessary for replication are available at the Dataverse Network Project (

Erik J. Engstrom is Associate Professor of Political Science, 469 Kerr Hall, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616 (


Considerable debate exists over the impact of electoral institutions on turnout in U.S. national elections. To address this debate, I exploit the rich variation in electoral rules present throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Using a newly constructed dataset of district-level turnout results for the U.S. House from 1840 to 1940, I find that electoral institutions and political competition jointly provided incentives, and by the turn-of-the-century disincentives, for political leaders to mobilize the electorate. The results demonstrate that changes in electoral institutions and varying levels of political competition help explain congressional turnout across districts and over time.