If you're an American who is not planning to vote Nov. 7, join the crowd. In the past few decades, less than 40 percent of eligible voters in the U.S. have bothered to cast ballots in midterm elections.
Your forebears would be ashamed. In late-19th-century midterm elections, turnout ranged from 65 percent to 78 percent. For presidential elections, almost 80 percent of the nation's eligible, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, voted. In 1888, 10 states had turnouts of more than 90 percent. Eight years later, Indiana voters set a record with 97 percent casting ballots.
Then, in the early 20th century, turnout began falling precipitously. By 1920, less than half of the voting-age population made it to the polls on Election Day. "The drop in voting was nationwide, substantial and cumulative," wrote Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, author of "Why America Stopped Voting." It was also unprecedented, both in America and other Western democracies. Americans, it seemed, no longer prized their right to vote.
But the new nonvoters were only partly to blame for their disengagement. A century ago, a raft of new state laws, supported by leaders across the political spectrum from conservatives to progressives, transformed the idea and act of voting so radically that hundreds of thousands of people dropped out of the political system. Many of them, and their children, would never return.
A 19th-century man (in most states, women weren't enfranchised until 1920) could decide to vote on the spur of the moment, pick up a simple ballot from party headquarters and drop it at the poll on Election Day, where his like-minded neighbors would give him a cheer and perhaps a beer. No preregistration was required, no taxes, no proof of residency, literacy or even citizenship. If, like most people then, he was a party man, his vote might earn him a reward, a small cash gift or even better, a job with the post office.
Election day was rowdy and festive, a thrilling climax to a political campaign that featured bonfires, barbecues, parades, torchlight rallies and passionate oratory. Politics were social and recreational at a time when there wasn't much other public entertainment. More than 20 percent of people were actively involved in campaigning. "Political matters were not complex, intangible and remote, but simple, concrete and directly related to the concerns of daily life," wrote Paul Kleppner in his 1982 book, "Who Voted?"
Newspapers covered little besides politics. The races were often close, the presidency changed hands in every election between 1876 and 1896, and the differences between the two parties seemed enormous. People wore their allegiances proudly. "We love our parties as we love our churches and our families," said a New Hampshire senator in 1885.
But many people thought the political parties, which basically ran the elections, were too powerful and corrupt, that the government should administer elections, and ballots should be secret so party leaders couldn't monitor their flocks' choices. Party symbols, like the elephant and donkey, would no longer appear on ballots, creating a de facto literacy test. The practice of rewarding loyal voters with cash on Election Day was widely outlawed. Competitive exams replaced patronage in awarding government jobs.
And citizens would no longer be able to depend on their party officials to vouch for their eligibility. Voters would have to register themselves in person, well ahead of the election, usually during working hours. Some states even required voters to register every year. Preregistration "increased the costs of participation to the individual and priced out of the system ... marginally involved citizens," noted Mr. Kleppner. After a registration law was passed, for example, the number of voters in Philadelphia dropped from about 385,000 to about 251,000.
Victor Rosewater, a Republican politician, wrote in 1928, "Much of the seeming lethargy" among voters "is chargeable to the hurdles which, by our registration laws, we put in the way of voting _ absurd laws that make it hard to vote instead of facilitating voting."
Other broad social trends also damped the electoral spirit. Americans were leaving their small towns, where social ties often reinforced their political biases. Candidates for office began using radio, rather than rallies, to spread their messages, making voters more passive. With the proliferation of other recreational activities, spectator sports, vaudeville, movies, Americans no longer "needed to look to politics for escape," Mr. Kornbluh said. And when women began voting in national elections, they voted at a lower rate than men.
Many scholars believe that lower voter turnout was an unintended consequence of much-needed electoral reform. Others think it was calculated. "A primary cause of the decline in turnout at the turn of the century was deliberate disenfranchisement," wrote Michael J. Avey in his 1989 study, "The Demobilization of American Voters." "Changes in election laws were clearly focused on particular segments that the political elites wanted out of the political process."
Mr. Kleppner came to a similar conclusion. The goal of election reform was to make it difficult for some citizens to vote. "That objective was cloaked in culturally acceptable rhetoric, emphasizing electoral 'purity' and, above all, progress."