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Why the poll booths of America are empty

(Page 2 of 3)

And then there are those like Mills, the activist in Colorado, who feels he can have a greater impact through direct, local action, rather than handing his mandate for action to someone else by voting.

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In a 1996 poll of 1,001 likely nonvoters, the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., found that nearly one-third of nonvoters are so-called "doers" like Mills: They are active in their communities, pay attention to the news, and tend to be educated.

Still, they often don't vote because they "don't have time" or because "politicians spend too much time on petty things."

If such social connectedness and community involvement were rising overall, then the decline in voting might not be as troublesome to observers. But, in fact, the nation's "social capital" - involvement in community networks - has steadily eroded for the past two generations, according to Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone."

Once-robust civic organizations, like the League of Women Voters, are struggling to remain active in some communities. Weekly church attendance - which correlates strongly with voting - is down. Newspaper reading and TV-news viewing, which also tie closely to voting, are declining significantly as each generation gives way to the next.

"Generational replacement," in fact, is the single biggest factor in the decline in turnout, says Mr. Putnam, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. As the World War II generation - known for high civic involvement - dies off and is replaced by their grandchildren, voting levels are going to continue to decline.

Young adults typically vote at lower levels than older, more settled adults. But fewer and fewer young people are converting into voters as they grow older.

Putnam himself places the largest share of blame on television: Since 1984, household viewing has averaged more than seven hours a day. "It's really quite lethal to civic engagement," he says. "And I'm not talking about watching 'The NewsHour.' "

Dinner-table index

Dan Bryan, a judge from Auburn, Neb., stands at the foot of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington and quietly reads the inscriptions on the wall.

"I always vote," says Judge Bryan. "Voting is a way of memorializing them," he adds, gesturing toward the statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president.

He lobbies his three children to vote, too, even though they exhibit the usual characteristics that weigh against voting among young adults - such as being away at school or simply on the move.

Daughter Colleen, an undergrad at Loyola University in Chicago, confirms that she does indeed vote. Usually. She missed the Nebraska primary, even though dad had sent her an absentee ballot. "I didn't know any of the issues," she admits.

Behaviors learned from our first teachers - parents - are perhaps the most deeply instilled. But as families get busier and spend less leisure time together, including at dinner, that becomes less true. In some families, dedication to voting may be a casualty.

Another factor, alluded to by Ms. Bryan, is the amount of work it takes to cast an informed vote. As initiatives and referenda proliferate, voters joke that they need to enroll in graduate school to understand all the issues. In California, for example, this year's voters' guide explaining ballot measures is a Michener-esque 74 pages long.

Beyond the explosion in initiatives - some of which involve hot topics and actually drive up turnout - Americans are asked to vote far too often, analysts say. Between primary and general elections, from president down to dog-catcher, voters can end up going to the polls four times a year.

"We have this system that's gotten more and more complicated and is asking more and more of citizens," says Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. "Basically, people don't want to have this much control."

Even many Americans who try to vote regularly say the political system isn't working. "I think the system's sick," says Ken Kozol, an electrical engineer from Long Grove, Iowa, who nevertheless votes "as much as I can."