CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — What will it take to get Americans to the polls Tuesday? What might shake them up enough to make them want to vote?
The patriotic outpouring that followed the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks 80 percent of Americans displayed the flag on their car, house, or lapel brought hopes of renewed voter interest. Yet, turnout in this year's congressional primaries was a mere 17 percent, no better than four years ago and only half that of three decades ago. Turnout in Tuesday's election is expected to be less than 40 percent, significantly below what it once was.
No doubt, ordinarily Americans share responsibility for their lapse in participation; it is always easier to leave the work of democracy to others. But it's time to stop blaming the citizens. Candidates, public officials, and journalists are not giving Americans the type of campaign they deserve.
Electoral competition is key to democracy, and America's voters aren't getting the full benefit of that. Only a couple of dozen of this year's 435 US House races are competitive. Two years ago, 98.5 percent of incumbents won, typically by margins of 70 percent or more. House incumbents have placed a lock on the offices they hold. They gobble up nearly 90 percent of PAC money, are favorably redistricted whenever House seats are reapportioned, and use their taxpayer-provided congressional staffs to conduct round-the-clock reelection campaigns. Of all the world's freely elected legislatures, the House of Representatives has the lowest turnover rate.
America's politicians have also managed to invent the most unappetizing campaigns imaginable. If equivalent offerings were served at restaurants, Americans would never eat out. Attack ads have doubled in frequency since the 1970s and now account for a majority of the ads featured prominently in campaigns. Many of the attacks are so twisted that even a whiff of fresh air would topple them.
True leadership has become so rare that politicians may no longer even dream of stepping forward to say something other than what polls tell them is safe. Tuesday's election will surely pass without much of a debate on the momentous foreign and domestic issues facing the nation.
And where are the news media? They're so enamored of infotainment and sensationalism that they can't find time for the midterm elections. In the 1998 midterms, coverage was down by more than half over 1994. And it's falling again a comparison of news coverage in 10 states shows the midterm election is getting 13 percent less coverage this year than in 1998.
When journalists deign to cover elections, they magnify the very things they rail against. Candidates are ignored or portrayed as boring if they run issue-based campaigns. Attack sound bites get airtime; positive statements land on the cutting-room floor. As for trivial issues, why did candidate Bush's 1970s drunk-driving arrest get more time on the network newscasts in the final days of the 2000 election than Gore's foreign policy statements got in the entire general election?
It's not surprising voters are disenchanted with campaigns. During the 2000 election, as part of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, we interviewed 100,000 Americans to discover why they're disengaging from elections. Their responses tell the story: 81 percent believe "most political candidates will say almost anything to get themselves elected"; 75 percent feel "political candidates are more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation's problems." (Other findings from our study can be read at the project website: www.vanishingvoter.org.)
Officials unfailingly urge citizens "to do your duty and vote." Yet, these officials embrace policies that make it harder to do that. Today, 87 percent of Americans reside in states that close registration two weeks or more before the election. The majority of unregistered Americans who otherwise would cast a vote this November are out of luck. Only six states allow election-day registration.
Tuesday, citizens had better be sure to vote at an hour dictated by those who set the rules. Amid the uproar over Florida's ballot irregularities, no commentator has seen fit to ask why polls there close at 7 p.m. Florida is one of 26 states that close their polls before 8 p.m.Unsurprisingly, turnout in these states is several percentage points below that of states where polls are open until 8 p.m. or later.
So look for a small turnout Tuesday, but don't ask citizens to look in the mirror. Some of them have cast their eye on what's going on in candidate- and media-land and are asking why they should be bit players in that artifice.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and author of 'The Vanishing Voter.'