Motivating Americans to Vote - Some Look to European Solutions

EVERY four years presidential campaigning in the United States resembles somewhat of a politicized version of Cinderella. Smitten with the hope of becoming president, the handsome candidates tour the countryside wanting to fit the glass slipper of hope to the foot of each and every voter.

But in this politicized version, the Cinderella-like voters in the US have been less than enamored with the final candidates. In 1962, almost 63 percent of the voting age population voted for president. By the 1988 election, the turnout had plummeted to 50 percent.

Politically speaking, Cinderella appears to be increasingly disinterested in the prince.

"The central problem now with low voter turnout is the lack of will," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C. "If we do not have meaningful choices and meaningful politics, it's hard to motivate people even if registration is easy," he said.

Gans suggests the will to vote has diminished for a host of reasons: The complexity of society's problems takes away the efficacy of votes. There is no widespread partisanship for either major political party. Voters in their 40s tend to be angry about the political process while young people are indifferent. Television has an trivializing effect on politics. And the current generation is dedicated to making their own lives better, not necessarily their communities; consequently political participation i s not a priority.

Other analysts disagree that a faded sense of community among citizens adds up to disinterest in voting. "You hear arguments that Americans are more alienated from government [than Europeans]," said Richard Cloward, executive director of 100% Vote/ Human SERVE, a nonprofit organization working to increase voter registration.

"But cross-national public- opinion surveys show Europeans are more alienated from government," Mr. Cloward said,"yet they have a greater turnout of registered voters. "

Cloward contends that ease of voter registration, as in European countries, is the key to getting more people to vote. "The core of our program, called 'Motor Voter,' is to register people to vote when they renew or apply for a driver's license or when they apply for government services such as food stamps or unemployment," he said.

In one form or another 30 states have adopted 'Motor Voter." For instance, in Minnesota there were an estimated 200,000 registrations through various government offices in the program's first year in 1988. Cloward indicates it cost the state only $65,000, or 33 cents a registration. And from January to October in 1990, there were 106,466 registrations.

Add to this the fact that Minnesota also has election-day registration, and the state now has the second-highest percent in the nation of registered voters, according to the Statistical Abstract. The state with the highest percent of registered voters is Maine.

But Gans points out that even with ease of registration the problem of the will to vote remains. "Minnesota and Wisconsin adopted election-day registration in 1976," he said, "and in 1988 their voter turnout was lower than it was in 1972."

To address the problem of will and registration, the nonprofit Vote America Foundation has two programs. "Our programs are for young Americans and traveling Americans," said Linda Leinbach-Mays, executive vice president. "We feel that schools don't teach enough about why it's important to be a good citizen, and part of being a good citizen is participating in the political process."

Vote America provides high schools with a teacher's curriculum on being an informed voter. "It went out to all 25,000 high schools nationwide," said Ms. Leinbach-Mays, "and our program for college campuses, on how to organize a voter registration drive, will be implemented on 2000 campuses this year."

In Austin, Texas, for instance, Vote America's 1990 high school and college program led to 5000 new voter registrations among 18 to 24 year olds.

In the southwest, where the Hispanic population is increasing rapidly, the difficulty is all of the above: will, registration, plus language. "We know that at least one out of four voters [in the West] uses at least part of the Spanish- language form of the ballot," said Bob Brischetto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute, "but I must say I can't see as much enthusiasm among Hispanic voters for the presidential primaries as I've seen for local elections."

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