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Why Voter Turnout Started Dropping Way Back in 1896

By LIDA TUNESI

Starting in 1896, voter turnout in the U.S. plummeted, and even today scholars are trying to figure out why.

By collecting a new set of data, Professor Vanessa Perez of Queens College has shown that personal registration laws caused part of the decline. In some cases, though, competitive elections helped offset the drop by drawing more voters. 

Perez’s work appears in a paper published in Electoral Studies.

“This research is important for us today given the striking parallels in the electoral environment,” Perez said. “It helps us to better understand how strict voting laws influence turnout and what mitigates any negative effects. We also learn that this is not the first time states have required voters to prove their identity at the polls based on what they look like.”

The post-1896 decline can largely be accounted for in the South by the outright and often violent suppression of Black voters. In the North, things were more subtle, but researchers have theorized that voter registration played a role. Starting in the late 19th century, states increasingly required people to register in person—a change from automatic registration or no registration at all—and researchers generally consider registration requirements to be a burden to voters. But so far these studies haven’t used enough data to be definitive, Perez writes.

For her new work, Perez dug into 36 years’ worth of records on state laws, from 1880 to 1916, as well as state constitutions and census data. Her findings show that personal registration laws caused voter turnout to drop by as much as 6%, and that when states also began recording voters’ appearances, turnout dropped by up to 19%. On the other hand, competitive races appear to have boosted states’ turnout by 10%.

Still, these numbers don’t account for all of the post-1896 downturn. Other reforms at the time included literacy and language requirements, registration fees, and proof of citizenship and identity. It’s possible that these affected turnout too, and that they particularly targeted Black and immigrant populations. To make things even harder, registration times were limited—many states only had three to five registration days per year. Perez plans to investigate all of this and more.

“In addition to expanding the scope of this study to measure additional restrictions and include more county-level analysis,” she writes, “I will further explore the role of race, ethnicity, and immigration and how the structuring of these laws impacted these populations.”