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Voter turnout drops to historic low

Just over 36% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the midterm election.
Voters stand in line before voting at the Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte
Voters stand in line before voting at the Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina November 4, 2014. With all 435 members of the U.S. House of...

How low was voter turnout in last week's midterm election? The last time it dropped to this level, FDR was president.

Just 36.4% of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to preliminary numbers compiled by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, a leading expert on turnout. That’s lower than every election since 1942, when just 33.9% of voters came out. Many Americans had a pretty good excuse that year, though, since the U.S. was at war with Germany and Japan.

The Obama era has seen high turnout for presidential elections: 58.2% in 2012, and 61.6% in 2008—the highest since 1968. Turnout for midterms is always lower. But this year it was down even more than usual, despite an ambitious and widely touted effort by national Democrats to use sophisticated data analysis and state-of-the-art organizing techniques to get their voters to the polls.

Photo essay: Voters, young and old, take to polls

Most observers attribute the low turnout to frustration among voters at the gridlock that has enveloped Washington, after Republicans made stymieing President Obama their top priority. That has left many voters—especially Democrats—feeling skeptical about the system’s ability to deliver change. Eighteen percent of voters said they feel they can never trust the government in Washington to do the right thing, according to the NBC News national exit poll.

According to McDonald's numbers, turnout actually increased compared to the 2010 midterms in 14 states plus the District of Columbia, many of which had competitive Senate or governor’s races:  Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, Alaska, Washington, D.C., Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Iowa and Oregon.

But it was down in the 36 others. Missouri—where some hoped the unrest in Ferguson might spur a political awakening—saw the biggest drop, from 44.5% in 2010 to just 32.3% this year.