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Why the poll booths of America are empty

(Page 3 of 3)



Mr. Kozol blames the dual party system, for one thing, saying he'd "sure like more diversity" among candidates. His wife, Sandy, who home-schools daughters Amy and Lara, adds, "You pick the top two candidates, and that's all you hear about, and then you're sick of hearing about them."

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But for those Americans who vote less often than the Kozols, overexposure of the major-party candidates isn't the problem. It may be too little exposure. In recent years, the parties have used increasingly sophisticated technology to pinpoint where "their" voters are, and target them, to the exclusion of non- or sometime-voters, who don't get the phone calls, e-mails, and regular mail that drive up turnout.

In other words, parties and candidates are not in the business of producing large turnouts. The key, for them, is to get more votes than the other guy, not to promote the lofty goal of greater democratic involvement.

Many nonvoters also point to the explosion of money in politics as a reason for staying away. Rick Romero, a construction worker and father of three from Denver, says he feels his vote doesn't count: Those who get into office are simply the ones with the biggest "war chests."

Likewise, poll after poll shows that the public intensely dislikes negative campaigning. Yet negative races often attract big turnouts - usually because they're closely contested. And in races where the most money is spent, turnout is highest, because they also tend to be the tightest battles.

Another player that takes some blame for declining turnout is the media, which tend to focus on campaign tactics and brawls rather than issues. The "civic journalism" movement, an effort to report news in a way that is more responsive to a community's needs, was launched in the early 1990s, but with mixed results.

Ultimately, though, it may be candidates themselves who can spur greater interest in voting. When John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, captivated the nation with his drive for the GOP presidential nomination, it was his air of straight-shooting "authenticity" that brought some nonvoters into the "small d" democratic fold.

What Mr. McCain's candidacy showed is that, when people feel inspired, they will turn out. In this year's New Hampshire primary, which featured hot races in both major parties, voter turnout topped 80 percent.

It's not all bad

Declining turnout has become the poster child for the view that the American political system is in distress - or, at least, has lost the faith of the people.

But, in fact, the two phenomena may be unrelated, says Ruy Teixeira, author of two books on voter turnout. Turnout now is not catastrophically lower than it was in 1960 - 63 percent - when government was viewed as more responsive, he says.

He also notes that turnout in most other major democracies has been dropping as well. Switzerland, the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development with lower turnout than the US, has declined by 39 percentage points since the 1950s. Only two countries have seen an increase: Denmark and Sweden.

To some, low turnout is a sign of satisfaction with government. Indeed, turnout in the US spiked up to 55 percent in 1992, when voters were unhappy with the state of the economy. But the low-turnout-equals-satisfaction argument fails to acknowledge the overwhelming survey evidence of public cynicism and unhappiness with government. In fact, it is older Americans - those with the highest turnout - who are most satisfied with government.

Still, many experts predict turnout this fall could be slightly higher than it was in 1996, when the nation approved of President Clinton's job performance and Republican nominee Bob Dole looked weak. This time around, the race is expected to be one of the closest in the post-WWII era, which could add to turnout.

Weighing against that is growing public sentiment that Washington just isn't as important as it used to be. Betsy Siegel, a wardrobe stylist for TV commercials in Miami, never voted in a presidential election until recently. Yet her real interest remains local issues - the neighborhood park, Christmas lunches for needy children.

"I don't know enough about Congress," she says. "I don't know how much they really do. And I think the president is more or less a symbol."

-- Jillian Lloyd in Denver, Clotilde Luce in Miami, and Liz Marlantes in Boston contributed to this series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society