Political Experts Bemoan Low Voter Turnout, Review '92

At a campaign-reform conference, last year's election ranks as more substantive than the 1988 presidential race

IT'S an American tradition: Every four years, people turn out to voice their views about how politicians are doing their jobs. Their opinions have a significant impact on the nation's future, but it's debatable whether it's for better or worse.

The tradition in question isn't the presidential election. It's the hand-wringing and recriminations that politicians, journalists, and academics engage in after every vote, arguing about what went wrong and how things can be done differently next time.

After the 1988 election, for instance, the consensus among experts was that the campaign was too centered on symbolism and not enough on substance. One result was that, last year, the news media began running ``truth boxes'' to police the worst excesses of candidates' TV commercials.

Unfortunately, as Prof. William Mayer of Northeastern University points out, the boxes often got it wrong. Then-President Bush, for example, was widely excoriated by the press for a TV commercial that claimed Bill Clinton would raise taxes on many Americans. Turns out, Professor Mayer says, that President Clinton's proposals have been pretty much in line with what Mr. Bush's commercial predicted.

Oh, well. Back to the drawing board.

This weekend, a panel of political experts gathered at Northeastern University here for a conference on ``electoral reform.'' The event was sponsored by politico-turned-professor Michael Dukakis, who teaches at the university. The consensus of the cognoscenti - mostly Democrats - seemed to be that last year's campaign was better and more substantive than the one in 1988.

Still, that didn't stop those attending the conference from pointing out flaws and suggesting improvements. Mr. Dukakis, a former Democratic presidential candidate, saw the main problem as being a lack of voter participation - even though turnout increased last year. ``Forty-five percent of eligible voters in America didn't bother to vote for president in '92,'' he said in an interview. ``There's something wrong if we can get so few people out.''

Raymond Wolfinger, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested that the reason for low turnout is barriers to voter registration. ``One solution,'' he said, ``is election-day registration.''

Joan Growe, secretary of state for Minnesota, which has had same-day registration since 1973, enthusiastically supported taking the idea nationwide. But she added that it may soon be overtaken by advancing technology. ``If you can put your card in a machine and get money back, surely the technology exists to put your card in a machine and record your vote,'' she said.

Other experts stressed, however, that easier registration is not a panacea for the nation's political problems. ``We feel getting out the vote is irrelevant if the vote is uninformed,'' said Adelaide Kim, associate director of Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan group that tries to educate citizens about their choices at the ballot box.

The job of informing the public, of course, traditionally falls to the news media. Prof. Marion Just of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government praised the press ``for plenty of reporting on the issues,'' mainly the economy. Although she added that during the crucial month of October 1992, when most voters were just tuning in, horse-race coverage dominated.

Stepping into the breach were talk shows, which featured the candidates in conversation with voters. While the shows were praised as a positive development by Professor Just, the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann suggested that they were lowering the level of public discourse.

Ms. Kim said: ``The problem is not lack of information - it's that there is so much information that it is conflicting.'' As a partial answer, she suggested expanding her group's activities, which include a telephone hot line and voter-information guides. Ralph Munro, secretary of state for Washington State, pushed for more state-produced informational booklets about candidates and initiatives.

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