SAN FRANCISCO — The classic test of democracy is whether citizens have a free and unhindered vote for the government of their choice. But a better measure of success may be the extent to which people exercise that right.
By that standard, even the most established democracies are showing signs of trouble. Globally, there is a clear and growing decline in voter turnout, extending even to the new democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Nowhere is the drop in voter participation more evident than in the United States, which went to the polls Nov. 5. Turnout in presidential elections has dropped steadily since 1960 to a historic low of about 50 percent of eligible voters in 1988. An upturn to 55 percent turnout in 1992 was expected to be reversed this year.
"Turnout in the US is lower than anyplace else in the world where you have reliable numbers," says Raymond Wolfinger, a voter-turnout expert at the University of California at Berkeley.
The low US turnout can be attributed to several things, experts say, among them the complicated voter registration system, the high mobility of Americans, and a lack of voter interest.
Most established democracies make it easy to register to vote, resulting in high levels of registration. In the US, where registration is far more difficult, only about 70 percent of those with the right to vote actually register.
"The real crisis is not voting - it is registration," says Professor Wolfinger. If we measure the turnout of registered voters rather than the broader category of eligible voters, US participation is comparable to European democracies, he says.
The registration problem is compounded by the high degree of mobility - 1 in 6 Americans moved in the past year. With loose ties to their communities, participation by these voters, particularly youths, is especially low.
This year will be the first test of the "motor voter act," which automatically registers those who get driver's licenses. The reform has boosted US voter-registration rolls by 5 million.
Other experts argue that the cause of declining voter turnout, in the US and increasingly in Europe, Japan, and other democracies, is lower voter interest.
"Motivation is the major factor," says Curtis Gans, head of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Mr. Gans argues that higher levels of voter turnout in Europe are the result of ideologically and socially rooted parties, parliamentary systems that give voters a sense their votes are more consequential, and rules that restrict the paid advertising that dominates US elections.
Lower voter turnout in Europe and Japan is a sign of social changes that mirror those in the US. "That difference between Europe and the US is breaking down with television and with more mobility," says Duke University political scientist Peter Lange, an expert on comparative voting behavior.
Russia's turnout is lower but real
Gone are the days of 99.9 percent turnouts in the old Soviet Union, when not only did everybody go to vote, according to the Soviet authorities, but they all voted for the same candidate.
In a more democratic Russia, voter participation is lower, but real. A remarkable number of Russians do their civic duty, considering how disillusioned many of them are with politics.
Last summer, when President Boris Yeltsin beat Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov, turnout was 69.8 percent in the first round of the election, and 68.8 percent in the second round.
That was down, but not by much, from the heady days of 1991, when Mr. Yeltsin first won the Russian presidency in a decisive showdown with Mikhail Gorbachev. Then, 74.6 percent of Russians turned out to choose their future.
In the Soviet Union, voting was not officially obligatory, but if you had not been to the polling station by early evening, an officially appointed "agitator" would come to your home and ask why not. To encourage people to come, the authorities would sell hard-to-find goods at the polling station.
Today, voting is voluntary. Only in the provinces do some of the old habits die hard. Trying to ensure a high turnout in recent gubernatorial elections in Krasnodar, Gov. Nikolai Yegorov offered subsidized sausage at polling places. It didn't work: not enough voters cast ballots to make the election valid.
France revamped to lift turnout
Three facts about the American presidential election campaign shock the French: its cost (at least $800 million), its duration (at least two years), and the low level of voter interest.
Little more than half of eligible Americans bothered to vote in 1992, compared with about 80 percent average turnout in France since direct presidential elections began in 1965. To French analysts, something is wrong with this picture. Direct elections are intended to interest voters and generate a "presidential majority" that transcends parties, lobbies, and special interests. "France has a history of monarchy, and presidential elections here have been viewed as determining the whole character of the political system," says Gerard Grunberg, director of research for the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life. "The idea that citizenship is expressed by the vote is more important in France than in the United States."
France, like most European nations, requires its citizens to register, but sanctions are rarely applied and the numbers who actually register are declining. In last year's presidential vote, nearly 3 million eligible voters (7.5 percent of eligible voters) did not register to vote and another 10 million (22 percent of registered voters) did not cast a ballot.
Mexico benefits from close races
In Mexico's last presidential election in 1994, almost 7 of every 10 registered voters cast a ballot. That figure reflects increasing participation as Mexico's presidential races - dominated for most of this century by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party - have recently become more competitive.
After several elections where voter turnout hovered around 50 percent, participation jumped to 65 percent in a hotly contested 1988 race that elected Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Participation rose again in 1994 to 68 percent, when President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon was elected. "In previous elections, there was no significant opposition," says Francisco Marn, assistant director of political studies at the Center for Opinion Studies in Guadalajara.
Still, some analysts point out that many Mexicans, especially in rural areas, fail to register. After taking this into account, "there is actually low voter participation," argues Joel Estudillo, a political analyst at the Mexican Political Studies Institute in Mexico City.
German participation slides
Over most of the republic's history, German federal election turnouts have been between 80 and 90 percent.
Some technical factors help explain Germany's higher turnout vis--vis the US: Elections are held on Sundays, so it is easier to get to the polls. There is no voter registration per se. Rather, when one moves to a new address one is required by law to "register with the police." This serves a number of purposes, including getting one onto the census, the tax rolls, and the list of voters.
Looking at the past decade-plus, one can make a case for a downward trend in voter participation, from 1983 (with 89.1 percent, near the historic high) to 1990 and 1994, whose turnouts were at or near the historic low, albeit by a fraction of a percentage point.
However, Gebhard Schweigler of the Institute for Science and Politics in Ebenhausen sees the trend positively, as a sign of "more normal" voter participation. Like some other political scientists, he sees low American turnout as a sign of public confidence in the system rather than of civic irresponsibility. If German voters have been turning out in smaller numbers in recent years, that may be a sign that they don't feel "an overwhelming need to register their protest."
Japanese shy from the ballot box
Voter turnout has declined steadily in Japan. In last month's election for the lower house of parliament, just under 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest percentage for a lower house race since the end of World War II.
The Japanese have few excuses. The government keeps painstaking records on its citizenry, meaning that everyone is automatically registered. Voter apathy is rising because Japanese politics is in the midst of a long, confusing realignment. New parties are being formed and old ones are changing names, making it hard for voters to keep track of who's who.
The economy is in a protracted period of lifelessness, but even this difficulty has not roused voters. Many Japanese complain that politics has little relevance to their lives and that politicians are unable to bring about significant change.
Canada restricts media, polling
Expensive door-to-door registration by the Canadian government prior to each federal election means 96 percent of all Canadians eligible to vote are registered. In the last federal election in 1993 the turnout was 69.6 percent, down from 1988 and 1984 when 75 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
While some say Canadians' high turnout relative to the US is due to being "civic minded," that isn't the main reason, analysts say. Canadians must wait for the prime minister to call an election, says John Wright, a pollster with the Toronto-based Angus Reid Group. "As a result, there's a much higher turnout because you only have one kick at the can every four or five years."
Like Americans, Canadians are becoming more cynical about politics, Mr. Wright and others say. But that this is not the reason for the 1993 vote falloff, he says. The 1988 vote became a virtual referendum on free trade, raising turnout, whereas in 1993 many Conservatives were unhappy with the party and nominee Kim Campbell, and thus didn't vote.
To help voter turnout, Canada restricts the news media from reporting election results until after polls close at 8 p.m. on the west coast. British Columbians, for instance, did not find out there had been a Liberal landslide in the east in 1993 until 8 p.m. their time - more than five hours after polls closed on the east coast. Newspaper opinion polls are also not allowed to be published for 72 hours before election day.
* Peter Ford in Moscow, Gail Russell Chaddock in Paris, Howard LaFranchi in Mexico City, Cameron Barr in Tokyo, Ruth Walker in Bonn, and Mark Clayton in Montreal contributed to this report.