For the United States’ first century, Americans elected their leaders in full view of their neighbors, gathering on courthouse steps to announce their votes orally or hand a distinctive preprinted ballot or unfolded marked paper to a clerk. Such a public process made elections ripe for bribes and threats, although the scene around American polling places never matched Australia’s, where a population of criminals and goldbugs made electoral intimidation something of a democratic pastime. To end such shenanigans, each of Australia’s colonies began shifting to a secret ballot during the 1850s, and in 1872 England followed suit.
A decade and a half later, the reform crossed the Atlantic. Louisville, Kentucky, enacted a so-called Australian ballot in 1888, and 32 states did the same by 1892—over the objections of machine politicians. By the turn of the century, most of the country had changed the public spectacle of Election Day into a solemn occasion for curtained isolation. This shift coincided with a dramatic drop in turnout rates, from nearly 80 percent of the eligible population in 1896—which had been typical for the era—to 65 percent eight years later.
They have never recovered, falling to around 50 percent in 1996.