Few vote in primaries – despite patriotic mood

Tuesday's turnout was low, even in states where key governorships were at stake.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With the first batch of primary elections completed in Illinois, Texas, and California, a glaring exception is emerging to the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotic activity: voting.

Despite evidence that Americans are now more civically engaged than they've been in years – paying closer attention to the news, volunteering in their communities, flying flags from their porches – fewer than one in three of California's registered voters bothered to vote in the state's primary this month. In Texas, only a rise in Hispanic voters kept turnout from hitting a record low.

Turnout for primaries is often feeble, of course. But these elections followed gubernatorial and mayoral contests in New Jersey, Virginia, and New York with extremely low turnout – just two months after the terrorist attacks.

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Analysts say that while higher levels of voting might be expected at a time of war and strong national pride, in reality recent events might be having almost the opposite effect. The focus on terrorism, for one thing, may be keeping turnout down, since it's an issue where voters see no real distinction between parties and candidates. Likewise, the strong feelings of national pride may be quelling feelings of party identification.

In a broader sense, however, the low-turnout figures also suggest that levels of patriotism and civic engagement may not have all that much to do with people's voting habits. Other factors, such as party involvement and voter drives, play a greater role.

Voting: a civic duty?

"One thing that is interesting and puzzling is that there didn't seem to be a translation of the events of Sept. 11 into some sense of civic duty that we ought to participate [in the voting process]," says Stephen Ansolabehere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "One of the questions has always been how much that sense of civic duty matters – and maybe it matters less than we think."

Certainly, analysts say, the lack of exciting races often keeps turnout low in primaries. And this year, the redrawing of congressional boundaries – which typically puts more seats in play – has instead further strengthened most incumbents. For example, California, which has a total of 53 districts, may only have one truly competitive race.

"Most House races are never competitive – and in California, they were carefully designed not to be this year," says Raymond Wolfinger, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Moreover, Professor Wolfinger points out, California's only "marquee" contest, namely the election for the GOP nomination for governor, was closed to all registered Democrats, who make up some 45 percent of the electorate. "When you take almost half of everybody off the board before you even start, it's likely the turnout is going to be low," he says.

A similar situation occurred in Texas. The most competitive contests – for governor and for the Senate – were confined to the Democratic side, a minority of voters in that state.

But this doesn't explain the low turnout figures from last fall's highly competitive gubernatorial and mayoral elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and New York.

Partisan bickering

Some analysts suggest that the prevalence of negative campaign ads in those races, in addition to some of those in recent gubernatorial primaries, may have been an even bigger turnoff for voters than usual. Polls indicate that many Americans are tired of partisan bickering.

Campaigns use negative ads primarily to drive voters away from an opponent, rather than increase their own support. That was certainly true in California, when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis's ads helped defeat Richard Riordan in the GOP primary.

"Davis wasn't trying to bring people in for him, he was just trying to turn people off of Riordan – and that didn't mean they switched over to [Riordan's opponent] Bill Simon," says Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Instead, many Republicans just didn't vote.

Still, he adds, it's striking that more Americans didn't decide to cast votes as symbolic gestures of support for US democracy. "That's not the way people see politics – as a way to show pride in their country," he says. "I guess one lesson is we don't feel very proud about our politics."

Connecting with voters

Indeed, for most Americans, feelings of patriotism seem largely separate from having a view of which side should win in an election. As a result, if candidates want to tap Americans' sense of civic duty as a way to increase voter turnout, they may have to draw a more explicit connection for them.

"People do have a sense of citizen duty, but it takes some campaign activity to really activate that," says Professor Ansolabehere. "You have to have campaign ads or flyers or people on TV saying, remember 9/11 – it's our duty to show the world we can work well."

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