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.
As modern civic activists have tried to increase turnout, their focus has been on reducing the hassle of participation. The most-successful reforms of the past decade, however—early in-person voting, “no excuse” absentee ballots, elections entirely by mail—appear not to have lured new people to the polls so much as merely made it more convenient for regular voters to cast their ballots.
What actually works is mimicking some part of the 19th century’s surveillance culture. The most effective tool for turning nonvoters into voters—10 times better than the typical piece of preelection mail, according to a 2006 Michigan experiment—is a threat to send neighbors evidence of one’s apathy. Other experiments have found gentler approaches that serve a similar function: merely reminding citizens that whether they cast a ballot is a matter of public record, or promising to print the names of those who do in a postelection newspaper ad, can boost turnout too. By introducing shame into the calculus of citizenship, the researchers behind these tests increased the psychological cost of not voting. In so doing, they restored the sense—sadly lost for a century—that voting ought to be not a personal act but a social one.
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