The Turnout Problem
Despite improvements in communications and transportation, and nearly 100% literacy,
elections, as measured by the percent of eligible voters that does in fact vote, has decline in the
last 100 years. This generalization applies to both elections in "presidential" years (the president is
being elected such as 1996) and "off-year" or congressional years such as 1994.
accompanying figure shows the trends.
It also suggests some points worth thinking about.
What explains the decline and persistently low level of voting in the United States. Many social
scientists, journalists, and others cite individual characteristics like socio-economic standing.
People at the bottom of the social ladder--those with less than a high school education or workers
in service industries--less likely to vote than college graduates and professionals. Alternatively
voting seems to be strongly associated with psychological factors like interest in and knowledge
about politics. Hence, in view of freedom of speech and universal suffrage (practically all adults
have the right to vote), it's easy to conclude that failure to take advantage of this freedom
represents a personal rejection of an important civic duty. In this sense, non-voters have only
themselves to blame. Or at least their lack of participation stems from individual causes because
the electoral "system" is open to all who want to be part of it.
Yet this conclusion troubles other analysts who believe that structural or institutional factors
affect turnout. The causes they cite include, among others,
- Election and registration laws:
- In the past people wanting to vote had to register. (Registration means a person has to
demonstrate to public officials that he or she is a citizen, a resident of a community, a
loyal citizen, and the so forth. The burden of proof falls on the individual, not the
government.) In some states registering was relatively easy; in others it required
considerable time and effort. Political Scientists have noted that places with the simplest
registration laws tended to have the highest turnout than those where registration called
for a lot of time and energy on the part of the prospective voter.
- A recently passed motor voter law supposedly makes it much easier to
registered since a person can now pick up the necessary forms motor vehicle
departments when applying for a driver's license or automobile tags. Similarly,
registration materials are distributed in other public places such as welfare
offices. It remains to be seen if and to what extent this reform increases
- The country traditionally conducts national elections on the first Tuesday in November,
an ordinary working day for most citizens. Moreover, the polls (i.e., voting places)
usually close by 8:00 p.m. Therefore, lots of people must take time off from work, child
care, or other responsibilities in order to vote. Reformers
suggest holding elections on weekends, over a period of time, or by establishing a
national holiday. The state of Washington, for example, experimented with a
reform of this kind in 1996 when it conducted a mail-in election for a special
senate election. Once again, whether or not such provisions spread to other states
and increase participation remains to be seen.
- The failure of the media
- Many social critics feel that the mass media (newspapers, network and local
television news programs, popular magazines) provide such bland and superficial
coverage of elections that people simply can't obtain necessary information at an
acceptable cost to feel comfortable voting.
- Many historians have argued that the media's failure to inform the public
adequately contrasts sharply with the stimulus provided by the earlier partisan
press. Around the beginning of the 20th century, many newspapers were openly
and unabashedly partisan. Although their news was by definition slanted, they at
least encourage their readers to believe that politics was the "moral equivalent of
war" and that voting for one party and against another was an important civic
duty. Today, the press prides itself on being "objective," on not taking sides
(except perhaps on the editorial page). Maybe it is neutral. But one of the
unintended costs has been the loss of a stimulus to participate.
- Even if one doesn't accept the value of partisanship in journalism, it remains true
that newspapers and television newscasts stress the "horse race" aspects of
elections rather than substantive differences between candidates. By stressing who
is ahead, who is behind the media leave the electorate confused and apathetic.
- Modern electioneering
- Listen to what candidates say about themselves and their opponents. Much
political rhetoric involves platitudes, slogans, imagery, name calling,
generalization, oversimplification, and especially avoidance of clear and concrete
stands on issues. Candidates, under the guidance of public relations experts,
communications gurus, pollsters, "spin doctors," and other advisors, follow
strategies of ambiguity that require them to attempt to be all things to all people.
How can a candidate accomplish that goal? By not taking clear and specific stands
on substantive issues and clarifying differences with the opposition.
- The result, many observers feel, is that the public simply can't find out enough
about contestants for public office to make reasoned judgments. Hence, the more
candidates attempt to play it safe by staying in the middle of the road (or better yet
staying off the road altogether), the more the public looses interest and doesn't
bother to vote.
- Political Party Weaknesses
- Never tightly organized, cohesive organizations to begin with, American political
parties have undergone a further deterioration during the last 30 years. True, they
now raise millions of dollars in campaign funds, produce slick television
commercials, provide research, and conduct public opinion polls. But they have
enormous difficulty doing what parties traditionally are supposed to do: educate,
energize, and especially mobilize the electorate. Worse, they (especially the
Democrat party) generally do not articulate coherent policy platforms that they
push year in and year out. In fact, for a number of reasons many voters have
become so dissatisfied with parties that they feel relatively little attachment to
them. Over the last couple of decades the Democratic party has lost some support;
but the Republicans have not been the winners. Now "independents," or people
without strong party attachments, outnumber partisans in many parts of the
country. Since partisans, those who feel close to a party, frequently participate
more than independents, participation has slipped even more.
All of these factors suggest that non-voting on one level may be a personal decision. But
it's a decision that current structures and practices encourage citizens to make.
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