Given all the legal safeguards that now bring almost every aspect of voter eligibility under national standards, one might expect that participation in elections would have risen sharply. In fact, the proportion of the voting-age population that has gone to the polls in presidential elections for the last thirty years or so has remained about the same-- between 49 percent and 60 percent of those eligible-- and today appears to be much smaller than it was in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Scholars have vigorously debated the meanings of these numbers. One view is that even allowing for the shaky data on which the estimates are based, decline in turnout has been real and the result of a decline in popular interest in elections and a weakening of the extent to which the two major parties are competitive. During the nineteenth century, according to this theory, the parties fought hard, got voters to the polls, made politics a participatory activity, kept registration procedures easy, and looked forward to close, exciting elections. But after 1896, when the South became a one-party Democratic region and the North heavily Republican, both parties, in turn, became more conservative, national elections usually resulted in lopsided Republican victories, and citizens began losing interest.

Another view, however, argues that the decline in voter turnout has been more apparent than real. Though nineteenth-century elections were certainly more of a popular sport than they are today, the parties were no more democratic in those days than now, and the voters then may have been more easily manipulated, and I dare say, gullible. Until the early twentieth century, vote frauds-- including ballot-box stuffing-- were common. If votes had been legally cast and honestly counted, the statistics of nineteenth century election turnouts might well have been much lower than the inflated figures we now have, so that the current decline in voter participation may not be as great s some have suggested.

Nevertheless, most scholars agree that even accurately measured, voter turnout probably did decline somewhat after the 1890s, largely because of reforms promoted by Progressives to purify the electoral process. One such reform was the adoption of the Australian ballot. This ballot was printed by the government and secretly cast by the voter in a private booth, replacing the old party-printed ballot that was cast in public. In other words, people would not have to be pressured into voting a candidate according to their party nor be constantly harassed if they voted otherwise. Elaborating on Rook’s point, the change helped reduce fraudulent voting. And voter-registration regulation became stricter, eliminating the participation of aliens and cutting back on that of blacks and transients.

Like most reforms in American politics, the Australian ballot and strict voter-registration procedures had some unintended consequences. Besides reducing fraudulent voting, these changes also reduced voting generally because they made it more difficult for certain groups of honest voters-- those with little education, for example, or those who had recently moved-- to register and vote. This was not the first time, and it will not be the last, that a reform designed to cure one problem created another. I remember back in the days when I was a poll-worker for my district, over 80 percent of the voters that I saw were non American natives and knew next to little or nothing about the process of voting. (Or maybe it’s because I live in the bay area and, or maybe a combination of both.)

Even after all the legal changes are taken into account, citizen participation in elections has still declined. Between 1960 and 1980, the proportion of voting-age people casting ballots in presidential elections fell by about 10 percent, a drop that cannot be explained by how the ballots were printed or the registration rules were written.

sources cited:
"The Changing Shape of American Political Universe" by Walter Dean Burnham
"Affairs of State" by Morton Keller, pp. 523-524
"The Effect of Australian Ballot Reforms on Split Ticket Voting, 1876-1908" by Jerrold D. Rusk, pp. 1220-1238