Why turnout is low in modern America

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Election turnout was reported to be heavy in many states with key elections such as Minnesota, where the dramatic entry of former Vice President Walter Mondale into the Senate race last week stirred political passions, and Florida, where the president's brother Jeb Bush was re-elected governor.

Still, overall turnout was not expected to break out of the range of 33.3 percent to 37.5 percent of all eligible voters (both registered and unregistered), which has been the midterm norm over the last dozen years, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.


Below-average turnout in New York, California and some other states with less-than-scintillating races appears to have roughly balanced off the turnout in the states with more exciting contests.

But even the relatively heavy turnout cannot compare to the high levels seen in other eras of American history and in other economically advanced democracies.


The three midterm elections during the 1990s saw turnout of all eligible voters range between a low of 33 percent in 1990 and 1998 and a high of 37 percent in the famously hard-fought year of 1994, when Newt Gingrich led House Republicans to a gain of 54 seats.

United Press International asked Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of the new book "The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty," why voter apathy has increased over the decades.

Q: How is this year's turnout shaping up?

A: Some states claimed record turnouts, but these claims were in terms of the raw numbers of voters rather than percentages of voters. Proportionally, the turnout in the 2002 midterm is substantially below that of 40 years ago.

Turnout in Tuesday's elections revealed the importance of competition. Particularly in the East and Midwest, voters responded to hard-fought, closely contested Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. The turnout percentage was far below record levels but in some states it compared favorably to its level of four years ago.

On the other hand, in states where the competition was weak and the campaign was lackluster, turnout was flat. This year's elections are a clear reminder that competition is the lifeblood of democratic elections. It is competition that gives voters a real choice. And it is competition that lures people to the polls.


Q: Why has turnout in recent years been so low compared to the past?

A: Americans are turned off on campaign politics. Regardless of how they might feel about the direction of the nation or their personal lives, they are disenchanted with elections. Large majorities believe that money has more influence on the outcome of elections than voters do, that candidates spend more time fighting amongst each other than talking about the issues, and that campaigns are more like theater than like serious efforts to address the nation's problems.

In recent decades, we've invented just about the least appetizing campaigns imaginable. Our campaigns are awash in negative advertising and attack journalism, often in the context of the most trivial issues imaginable. U.S. campaigns also go on for months and months, wearing down the citizens and taxing their attention.

Somehow, we've got to find a way to make campaigns more uplifting and more rewarding so that we give people reason to vote.

Q: Does one's vote count for less these days?

A: Competition is being squeezed out of our elections. Although control of the House may come down to a single race, there are, in total, only about three dozen competitive races out of a total of 435 House contests. In scores of districts, the incumbent is running unopposed. In 2000, 98.5 percent of House incumbents were reelected, typically by margins of more than two to one.


And there is no mystery to why incumbents do so well. They get nearly 90 percent of the PAC money and use their congressional staffs to run round-the-calendar re-election campaigns. Voters can hardly be expected to get excited about rubber-stamp elections.

Q: Which demographic groups are voting less often?

A: Generational change accounts for a lot of the decline, The high participatory generations from the Great Depression and World War II era are being replaced by the X and Y generations, which are the least politically interested and informed generations in the history of polling.

Turnout among Americans between 18 and 30 years of age was nearly 50 percent in 1972. It was barely above 30 percent in 2000.

College-educated Americans vote at about the same rate today as they did 20 or 30 years ago. Less educated Americans, however, vote at much lower rates today. As the political agenda shifted away from the bread-and-butter issues of New Deal style politics, lower-income Americans were left behind.

Our politics has become more and more a politics directed at middle-class voters, nowhere more evident than with the "soccer moms" who received so much attention in 1996.

Q: What can be done to improve the situation?


A: Until some large issue comes along to shake Americans from their complacency, voter turnout is likely to remain low and may continue to decline. But there are some things that can be done to make participation easier and to make elections more palatable. More states could do what six states already do: permit citizens to register on Election Day.

States could also extend their polling hours; there are 26 states, including Florida, that close their polls before 8 p.m., which serves to reduce turnout among young adults and people who are tied to the workplace during the day.

Voting would also increase if candidates would be less timid -- polls determine too much of what they see. True leadership -- positions taken out of principle rather than expediency -- is increasingly rare in campaigns, yet something that citizens yearn for.

The news media also need to meet their public responsibility more fully. Election coverage fell by half between 1994 and 1998 and is lower still this year. In their quest for audiences, the news media have downgraded traditional public affairs coverage, including election coverage, while elevating human interest and celebrity stories.

We cannot expect citizens to be well-informed or excited when campaigns are not covered fully by the press.


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