That low vote: apathy or arithmetic?

Americans may not be quite as apathetic or "turned off" about government and politics as last week's voter turnout would seem to indicate. A small but growing number of analysts question the validity of the figures generally cited by columnists, citizen groups, and pollsters after every US election to bolster the argument that election reforms are needed to get more Americans to the polls.

On the surface, the election turnout represented a continuation of a disquieting trend over the past two decades in which a smaller and smaller percentage of the voting-age population chose to exercise their franchise. Many observers are concerned that in each of the last five presidential elections, the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots declined -- from 63.8 in 1960 to 54.4 in 1976 to an unofficial 52.1 percent in 1980. In this case "eligible" is broadly defined as those of voting age, registered or not.

But the point some election researchers make is that it is important to distinguish between "potential" voters -- i.e., those the Census Bureau lists as being of voting age -- and registered or truly "eligible" voters, whose numbers would not include, for instance, the large alien population in the US (who are included in that ominous 52 percent figure).

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Ronald C. Moe, a specialist on American government at the Library of Congress , notes that even the list of actually "eligible" or registered voters is a poor gauge for determining American voter participation, mainly because most states are lax in purging their rolls of persons who have moved away or passed on since the previous general election. Take California, for instance, which has a better purging and voting record than many states. In 1976, registered voters casting a ballot for one of the presidential candidates was put at 78.7 percent. But some who showed up at the voting booth did not vote for president or, for one reason or another, did not have their presidential ballot tabulated; 81.5 percent actually appeared at polling places. Even that figure is misleadingly low, says Mr. Moe, because an estimated 6 percent of those listed as registered had moved or passed on. The "real" voter participation rate was closer to 88 percent -- which is more in line with voter turnouts in Western Europe.

California purges its voter rolls every two years, but other states do so at four-year or other infrequent intervals, thereby adding to the distortion of national voting statistics. Even if the percentage of registered voters participating in US elections is near 88 percent, as Mr. Moe and others argue, that is no reason for complacency or for failure of states to institute registration and election reforms. A recent American Bar Association study suggested a variety of measures for encouraging voter participation, among them: reforming the presidential primary system and changing election dates to weekends or holidays. Any such measure that promises to make it easier for more people to fulfill their voting obligation ought to be studied closely. In the meantime, the public ought to be aware of the distortions in voting statistics.

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