How the US voter turnout got so low

This is the time of year when it's faddish to lament that American voter turnout in presidential elections has been low - 52.6 percent in 1980 - and to urge that every effort should be made to reverse that trend. To be sure, voter participation in the United States is behind that of many other nations; political leaders would certainly welcome an increased turnout tomorrow, and there is some indication they may get their wish. At the same time, it would be erroneous to suggest that the overall trend illustrates a major defect in the body politic.

Unlike some other countries, America has no paternalistic voter registration system. In Britain, election officials are responsible for going out into the land to keep voting lists up to date; in France, registration is compulsory; and Australia imposes a fine on nonvoters.

In addition, the United States is the most fiddle-footed nation of the world, its residents roaming the land with such frequency that registration and absentee voting are no longer simple. Only four states permit registration on election day; only one allows voting without registering.

In Colonial times, eligible voters were induced to vote because the ballot was not secret, and there was a reward: In Virginia, for example, oral votes were cast, in return for which the chosen candidate extended food and drink.

Even in areas where the paper ballot became widespread by the 19th century, voting was still not secret, and it was rewarded. Not surprisingly, voter turnout was high. In presidential elections it was 80.2 percent in 1840, 81.8 percent in 1876, and 74.7 percent in 1892.

By 1910 all states except South Carolina and Georgia had adopted the secret ballot. By 1928, a universal prerequisite for voting in presidential elections was American citizenship - like the secret ballot, it cut down on fraud as well as voter participation. By 1932, voter participation was down to 56.9 percent and would remain in that range in subsequent elections.

Voter turnout could also be correlated with increasing national stability, that is, the extent to which Americans have established a political consensus. In contrast to nations with conspicuous ideological parties, the US in recent decades has forged a political environment that features candidates more alike than different, which makes most presidential elections cliffhangers. When candidates are perceived to be radically different, as Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972, the consensus breaks down and election landslides prevail. Political sameness is not conducive to high voter turnout, but it is scarcely an unwelcome development.

Perhaps most important, as the nation with the most freedom for its citizens America thereby encourages nonparticipation as much as it does participation in the voting process. While the latter may be more socially valued than the former , both should serve to remind us of the enormous range of legitimate choice in our society.

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