A variety of factors -- immigration, Reconstruction, a booming native-born population -- led to the number of American voters swelling immensely in the 1800s. And as it is today, simply getting voters to the polls was the number-one goal of political parties. Sure, the tactics were a little more extreme back then -- large crowds of advocates rounding up eligible citizens and escorting them to the polls, bald-faced bribes to voters, and ballot fraud was common, particularly in big party-controlled cities like Chicago, New York, and Boston. But the efforts worked: voter turnout topped 70% (in some cases even 80%) in every presidential election between 1856 to 1900. In 1896, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio even saw 95% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Short of cash handouts or Facebook likes or free barbecue for every ballot cast, it’s unlikely that level of voter participation will ever be achieved in America again.
A lot has changed when it comes to political campaigning -- but a lot has also remained the same. So next time you find yourself complaining about how terrible all the candidates are, remember that their job isn’t easy. And politicians, remember, barbecue -- serve up some good ’cue and Americans will come running.