Voting: for the many, by the few. Though turnout figures for yesterday's vote aren't complete yet, they're expected to continue the downward trend of recent elections. Are we becoming a nation of couch potatoes? (Election results tomorrow.)
Washington — Did you vote yesterday? Millions of Americans didn't - and a major reason may be television.
The trend toward nonvoting is a source of growing concern among political analysts. They say the situation has become worse in almost every election since 1960. Between that year and 1984, voter turnout declined more than 15 percent.
When the final figures are totaled for 1988, experts predict, the downward pattern will continue.
Reversing the trend won't be easy. And while analysts blame many factors, a number of them single out television as a prime culprit.
Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says, ``Television really does have an effect.''
Mr. Gans explains that TV is breed ing ``passivity'' among citizens. ``It atomizes society. It sends people home to watch the tube and become spectators rather than participants.''
In earlier years, Americans were readers, talkers, doers. Voters studied newspapers, became active in political precinct work, argued politics with neighbors. They were busy participants in their communities. TV sharply reduces such activity, some experts assert.
One of the most damaging innovations in our society ``was the invention of the coaxial cable,'' Gans says.
Arthur J. Kropp, president of People for the American Way, agrees with Gans. He complains:
``Watching television is not an intellectual exercise. It doesn't force you to do anything. It is lulling people into complacency.''
Experts say that even the best TV news programs don't remedy the problem of passivity. They are no replacement for active pursuits like reading newspapers, magazines, and books, taking part in public forums, and joining political organizations.
Mr. Kropp's organization recently completed a study on the problem entitled ``The Vanishing Voter and the Crisis in American Democracy.''
The study found that Americans in general have become ``lazier about a whole bunch of things, not only voting,'' Kropp says. ``They are more passive. It all fits together.''
Thomas E. Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, warns against heaping all the blame on TV, with its 10-second sound bites and negative ads.
The problem of turnout is complicated, he notes. It's true that voter turnout has slumped as couch potatoes slouch in front of their 21-inch color sets. Ironically, that falloff has occurred just as some other forms of participation, such as letter-writing to congressmen, have increased.
While not denying TV's role in the problem, Dr. Mann says that the decline in voting has taken place as political parties have atrophied, and as personal contact between voters and political workers has declined.
Mann also believes that the decline of partisanship may be hurting turnout. In the 1960s, there were millions of voters who still remembered the Great Depression and who were enthusiastic supporters of the Franklin D. Roosevelt coalition.
But as those voters pass from the scene, younger Americans fail to carry on the FDR tradition. They are less interested in government, and what it can or should do for them. The ``me'' generation has taken over from the ``we'' generation.
Gans, who also released a new report, ``Non-Voter Study '88-'89,'' says the detrimental effect of TV involves several factors: negative political ads that alienate voters; excessive viewing rather than reading; reduced coverage of public affairs; cancellation of gavel-to-gavel coverage of political conventions; failure to nationally broadcast most debates during the primaries; and growing cynicism of TV reporters who seem to make all the candidates look bad.
Solving the problem won't be easy, the experts say. Gans says it must be attacked through improved upbringing of children (including less TV), education, stronger political parties, and getting TV consultants out of the political process. The consultants, by manipulating television and campaigns, are causing great damage, Gans argues.
Kropp's study recommends action by schools, businesses, and community-based groups to increase voter turnout.
High schools, for example, can get students registered. In one program, schools in Dade County, Fla., had nearly 100 percent success. American businesses can create nonpartisan voter-participation programs - a step that a few companies have already taken. Community-based groups can lead voter-registration drives.
Mann says: ``Many people feel less connected to politics and voting today. It isn't part of their life.''
Mann notes that for some citizens, TV is beneficial, giving them information they could get no other way. But for others it is a depressant - a detriment to public involvement.