Why voting is falling off

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A public opinion poll on why so many Americans are not voting these days did not prove too enlightening. Most people who do vote are better educated, better paid, and older than those who don't vote. That was the finding of a survey conducted by Harvard University and ABC News.

The study confirms what reporters have been learning when interviewing voters leaving the polls in postelection surveys in the past several years.

I recall my first vote. I was elated that my birthday fell just in time so that I could cast a vote in the presidential election of 1936. How proud I was to walk in to the Urbana, Ill., City Hall that day with my father.

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I can't say I felt that I was properly fulfilling my role as a citizen or that my vote was helping to make our democratic system work. Nothing as starry-eyed as that.

Mainly, I wanted to have my say as to whether or not Roosevelt should stay in office. And this was my opportunity. My attitude toward voting was not unique at that time. All the young people I knew - most of them fellow students at the University of Illinois - shared this eagerness to participate in elections.

But with a deep depression as a constant backdrop and with blackening war clouds on the horizon, there was ample reason for young people in those days to become disenchanted with the system.

There was some bitterness about the adversity of life in general. And there were some doubts being raised about whether our government could cope with the immense economic problems, particularly those of unemployment.

By and large, however, students of that period, all across the country, were relatively tranquil. Their advocacy of - and pride in - the American way of governing was for the most part undiluted.

So it was that my generation, buffeted by rough seas, voted eagerly and went to war patriotically.

That all changed with the Vietnam war. Student advocacy turned into protests and widespread on-campus distress over the war and over the government that was carrying it on. That was mainly in the '60s and early '70s.

But then, almost abruptly, a new student attitude took over. I found this on the many campuses I visited as a reporter or as a teaching fellow over the last decade.

Students were again going to class and seriously pursuing their studies. They had cut off their long hair of rebellion. They clearly had made up their minds to learn as much as they could and make the best grades in order to get good jobs and fit into the system.

But it was not a turnback to the attitudes of my generation.

What remained from the '60s was a widespread feeling that the people could do very little by working within the system to achieve results.

Also, I don't know how many students - bright students - have said something along this line to me:

''My vote wouldn't mean anything. We'll end up with the same kind of president with about the same views no matter which candidate wins.'' And so they weren't voting simply because they felt their vote wouldn't make any difference.

My findings as a reporter also tell me that this attitude has done much to reduce voting among the rank and file - as well as among students. There is a widespread feeling that the vote of the individual doesn't make any difference.

The highly respected political analyst and pollster, Peter Hart, put it this way at a breakfast meeting with reporters: ''So many people don't see they have a stake in the system. They don't see elections as changing their lives.''

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