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Discontent Fails To Mobilize American Voters

Voters show trend toward voting absentee, but not toward overall greater turnout

By Scott Armstrong and John DillinStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / November 6, 1990



WASHINGTON

IT'S election day, and in Minnesota, officials think they've finally found a way to get more people to vote. They've sent absentee ballots to thousands of deer hunters. In a state where hunting often ranks higher than voting as a civic duty, the opening of deer season can shoot holes in voter turnout. So this year, officials included an absentee ballot with every deer hunting license. Result: absentee voting, and perhaps overall turnout, is expected to rise.

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Across the country, voter turnout has plunged for years, worrying politicians and puzzling political scientists. It's gotten so bad that half of all Americans don't vote. In 1988, turnout was worse than at any time since 1924, and in Northern states, it was the worst since 1824, experts say.

Yet even small changes in turnout can be crucial today.

In North Carolina, a swing of just 1 percent in voter turnout today could keep the nation's premier conservative, Sen. Jesse Helms (R), in office, or send him packing. In Massachusetts, a slight increase in turnout could give that state its first Republican governor since the 1970s.

In Texas and California, small increases in black and Hispanic voting could unexpectedly tip the gubernatorial races toward the Democrats. In Iowa, a solid Republican turnout could oust Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

State officials say actual turnout today will be patchy. In states where voters are angry or where hotly contested races are under way, it could be higher than usual. In North Carolina, for example, absentee balloting prior to election day was greater than in presidential election years.

In Arizona, state officials are predicting about a 65 percent turnout, up from the usual 55 percent. The estimated increase is due in part to a tight gubernatorial race between former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard (D) and businessman Fife Symington (R). Arizona also has several high-profile initiatives on the ballot, including one that would dramatically increase spending for education and another that will determine if there will be a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Interest is high in Washington State over a growth-control measure dubbed ``Little Green.'' That is expected to bring at least a moderate turnout at the polls - 60 to 65 percent - even though there are no statewide races in Washington this year.

Voter anger, a sweeping tax-limitation measure, and one of the most unusual gubernatorial contests in the country are expected to enhance turnout in Massachusetts. The secretary of state's office predicts turnout will be just over 70 percent, which would be the most for an off-election year since the 1970s. Fifty-nine percent turned out in 1986.

Florida, site of another important gubernatorial showdown, expects an average turnout of 60 to 65 percent. The governor's race looks like a dead heat, but elections officials say the excitement over the race will be offset somewhat by voter turnoff over negative campaigning and disdain for government in general.

One of the most prominent trends this year is a rise in absentee balloting. Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, and several other states are reporting higher-than-usual interest in voting by mail.

The phenomenon is probably most pronounced in California. The secretary of state predicts 20 percent of the electorate will cast an absentee ballot, a state record.

Both parties in California have mounted aggressive absentee efforts. The GOP mailed out 4 million absentee ballot request forms, part of a $7 million get-out-the-vote drive.

Absentee ballots have long been a GOP strength: In 1982, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley got more votes on election day than Republican George Deukmejian, as did Michael Dukakis over George Bush in presidential balloting. But both Bradley and Dukakis lost the absentee count - and the state.

California Democrats, for their part, mailed out 1 million absentee forms. Even though their get-out-the-vote drive is far smaller, they contend that they have been more precise in targeting voters who are registered, but do not regularly vote.

Still, many Californians won't bother to vote. California Secretary of State March Fong Eu predicts 62 percent of registered voters will go to the polls. That's slightly more than the 59 percent who did in 1986, but would still be the third lowest turnout in California history.

Many familiar reasons are cited for the decline: cynicism about government, the feeling voting won't make any difference, confusion about candidates and issues. Another reason may be voter fatigue - a numbness about all the ballot measures to weigh.

Twenty-eight questions will be on the California ballot and countless others at the local level. The pamphlet sent out to explain all these was like a Sears catalog, 222 pages, a document so complicated that even political scientists found it confusing.

Curtis Gans, director for the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicts that despite voter unrest over higher taxes, the savings and loan bailout, and the congressional pay raise, most voters will greet today's election with a yawn. He predicts voter turnout of 36 percent nationally, equaling the low of 1942.