Theses Doctoral

The Effects of Voter Registration and Declining Political Party Competition on Turnout in the United States of America, 1880-1916

Perez, Vanessa

My dissertation explains the extent to which electoral institutions and declining political party competition precipitated a steep decline in U.S. turnout after 1896 from which the nation never recovered. Turnout dropped from 83 to 66 percent in less than ten years. This is a persistent puzzle in political science because data limitations have stymied empirical assessment of existing theories. Using original datasets on nineteenth century voter registration laws and records on political gambling on presidential elections from 1880 to 1916, I test the hypothesis that the shift in electoral behavior was a function of registration reforms and declining competition. I find that registration laws and political competition modestly explain the decline. Registration reforms explain one percent of the seventeen point turnout drop, and the combined effect of registration and declining competition is approximately two to three percentage points of the drop. I also found that the effect of registration are conditional on immigration, the effect is stronger in states with higher immigrant populations. For the most part, political party competition had a positive effect on turnout in the expected direction. In states remaining competitive after 1896, the long-term average effect of competition on turnout was an increase of about 14 percentage points. To validate this argument, I use election-betting data to create a measure of the public's perception of electoral competition in the states. My findings indicate that highly informed individuals accurately predicted election outcomes, which suggests the public was aware of the electoral competitiveness of presidential elections in the states. This means that perceptions about the electoral competitiveness of races likely influenced voters' decisions to participate. My dissertation advances our empirical and theoretical understanding of the interaction between institutions and political behavior and helps to inform the current debate on the potential implications that contemporary legal reforms in election laws might have on voter participation in America.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Erikson, Robert S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014