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Why the poll booths of America are empty

By Linda Feldmann Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2000

Mark Mills cares passionately about community issues. He calls local officials and writes letters to the editor about everything from school spending to local tax rates. Yet he rarely votes. Currently, he's not even registered.

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"To me, politicians have become so removed from the real world," says the middle-aged Mr. Mills, a computer technician with a PhD who lives in Denver. "Politics is just so ... political."

As the nation's politicians, parties, and press gear up for the first elections of the millennium, more and more Americans are dropping out of the conventional political process - even civic-minded people like Mills.

Indeed, while the United States often holds itself up as a model of democracy, it has chronically produced one of the lowest voter participation rates in the Western world since World War II. It hardly seems what the Founding Fathers had in mind 224 years ago when they set forth a blueprint for a new kind of representative government, one deriving "just powers from the consent of the governed."

Since 1960, when modern-day US presidential voting peaked at 63 percent, turnout has declined by 14 percent, to less than half the voting-age population. This November, it could drop even further. Experts have been grappling with the downward drift for years, but never more than now. Dozens of groups, from Harvard

University to the World Wrestling Federation, are devoting resources to understanding and, they hope, reversing the decline in voting.

"We have a crisis of the erosion of democracy at the grass roots," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Walter Dean Burnham, another expert on voting, says the attitudes associated with low participation - the apathy, the anger, the negative views of government - may be even more dangerous than low turnout itself. In fact, he notes, studies show that people who do vote are just as cynical about politics as people who don't.

"You've got all this surging just below the surface, even at a time when the context - peace and prosperity - is so favorable," says Mr. Burnham, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Still, many people, like Mills, are finding new ways to participate in politics - just not at the ballot box. So, at the start of a new century, the question looms: Is American democracy broken, or just being transformed?

'Doers' who don't

Karl Stoecker of Miami, a lanky, blond magazine photographer in his late 50s, has one foot inside the mainstream and one foot outside. Every morning, he likes to go to the ocean to chat with the young surfer/philosopher crowd. He also has two daughters in public school - and says he's fine with paying taxes to support their education.

"But I won't help [politicians] push their system by voting," says Mr. Stoecker. They "cater to business interests, not to the public's."

Jill Davidson, a 30-something massage therapist and restaurant hostess in Miami, laughs when asked if she votes. "I don't know where to go register," she says, flush from a workout at the gym. "And reason No. 2, I'm just lazy."

Consciously or not, these two people represent a significant element in the American psyche: the notion that the right not to vote is as valid as the right to vote.

If they were from Australia or Belgium, where voting is mandatory, they would face a fine on the order of a parking ticket for a "no-show" on election day. In Australia's two most recent elections, turnout there broke 80 percent.

Stoecker and Ms. Davidson represent another important observation about nonvoters in America: Those over age 45 tend to be more angry and alienated, while those below 45 tend toward indifference.

It may be, observers say, that older nonvoters grew up with higher expectations of what government can accomplish, while the younger generation came of age when disillusionment with government was already in place. Since the 1960s, a steady stream of events - the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-contra, the Lewinsky matter - has reinforced cynicism about Washington.

Still, attitudes and behaviors of nonvoters vary widely: Some appear so intimidated by the complexity of the issues involved that they don't vote, almost out of respect for democracy. Others are absorbed by concerns at home and work, and don't see the need to become civically engaged.