Jon Grinspan, a historian at the Smithsonian, has a piece in the New York Times describing in glowing terms the prominent role of young adults in 19th century U.S. elections. Although a professional historian, Grinspan seems not to understand why voter turnout declined precipitously in the early 20th century.
Campaigners enlisted youths to hand out ballots, round up drunks and mob rival demonstrations. In an era of close elections and few independents, “virgin voters” became decisive, lifelong partisans. Though they condescendingly treated youths as political tools, many followed Lincoln’s advice to “gather up all the shrewd, wild boys about town, whether just of age or a little under age.”
Politicians needed young people, and vice versa — together they fueled an enormous system that blurred the line between the political and the personal. When Americans think about 19th-century democracy, we imagine earnest statesmen or cigar-chomping bosses. But the real force driving this experiment in popular government was often a gawky, anxious, ambitious 21-year-old.
But something went wrong after 1900. Turnout crumbled, from roughly 80 percent in 1896 to 48.9 percent by 1924, as new voters stopped joining. With a stable school system and a welcoming teenage culture, youths needed politics less. At the same time, elite campaigners abandoned working-class young people, preferring hotel banquet halls to public barbecues. There were, to be fair, fewer stabbings on Election Day, but also fewer bonfires on election night.
The reason for the decline in voter turnout after 1900 is no mystery, and it has little to do with teenage culture, banquet halls, or a “stable school system.” Turnout declined dramatically for two primary reasons: registration requirements and Jim Crow.
Prior to the 1890s, there typically existed no requirements that people register in order to vote. Anybody could show up, ballot in hand, and cast a vote on election day. Since names of voters were not checked against a list, much fraud took place, especially in urban areas, as people hopped from one polling place to another to cast multiple ballots. All this fraudulent voting inflated the vote counts, and thus boosted the turnout rate over the 80 percent mark. To combat this fraud, cities in the 1890s started requiring registration, which significantly reduced the vote count and therefore the turnout rate.
The other major change that depressed turnout in the early 20th century was Jim Crow. Southern states enacted poll taxes and other measures to disenfranchise black voters. These measures all but eliminated black turnout. They also had the effect of depressing white turnout, because the South became effectively a one-party state with uncompetitive elections. People saw not much point in voting when the victory of the Democrat candidate was a foregone conclusion. As a result, turnout during this era was much lower in the South than in the North. The very low turnout rate in the South, however, tended to reduce the computed turnout rate for the nation as a whole.
We would have thought that a historian from the Smithsonian would have known these basic facts of U.S. voting history. Although perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, since this performance is consistent with the level of competence we’ve come to expect from government employees.