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Yawns Aside, Voters Do Care

December 15, 1999



The latest Republican presidential debate, held in Iowa, featured a refreshingly hearty exchange of ideas. Compared with other recent forums, the candidates avoided personal attacks. But what most distinguished it was a final comment by co-moderator and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw.

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In an appeal to Iowa voters and television viewers nationwide, Mr. Brokaw said, "... there are few more important things that we'll do in our lifetime than pull the lever for the president of the United States, especially as we enter a new century."

Mr. Brokaw's plea might help renew a flagging public interest in this presidential campaign. According to a Shorenstein Center poll for the Vanishing Voter Project - a project dedicated to increasing public involvement in the political process - nearly 60 percent of the public said they were paying "little" or "no" attention to the presidential campaign.

The study suggests that several states' efforts to move their primaries earlier in the political calendar in order to exert more influence has resulted in a longer campaign that doesn't hold voters' interest. Indeed, though news coverage of the New Hampshire primary is 50 percent heavier than in the comparable period in 1996, some 54 percent of those polled indicated "it's simply too early in the campaign" to merit close attention. This primary front-loading has already winnowed the field of presidential contenders before a single vote has been cast.

But it's also too early to label the American public "apathetic." People may yawn at the early-bird campaign, but a poll by the National Election Studies shows that strong interest in public affairs has increased over the last three decades. Equally surprising is a marked increase during this decade in the percentage of Americans who "care who wins the presidential election."

It's a mistake to gauge the strength of American democracy based on voter turnout. The percentage of Americans who vote is low compared with many other democratic countries, but this largely reflects the lower notch politics occupies on the totem pole of American values - and a spirit of contentment as much as apathy. And contrary to popular belief, average voter turnout in America, while fluctuating, has not substantially decreased over the last 50 years. In 1948, turnout was 51 percent; in 1996, it was 47 percent.

Former President Bush once remarked, "What happens in your house is far more important than what happens in the White House." Often true, but choosing the leader of this country is a solemn charge. Not exercising this right chips away at the freedoms that define democracy.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society