Why So Many Americans Stay Away From the Polls

Andrea Southworth of Kingston, Mass., felt guilty about it, but on election day she went on a date instead of voting. Grad student Katy Parks in Arkansas was too busy to reregister. And Maryland businessman Edward Davis-Bey said he stayed away because politicians don't keep promises.

"I'm a little disillusioned by the whole thing," said Mr. Davis-Bey, heading to work with a Walkman headset dangling around his neck. "People say one vote matters, but I don't see it."

Voter turnout Tuesday did not hit a record low, as some had predicted. Turnout was average for a midterm election, at 38 percent, slightly below 1994's 38.8 percent.

Still, by far the majority of America's eligible voters chose not to cast ballots. Why so many no-shows at polling booths?

Experts cite four main reasons: negative campaign ads that exacerbate a lack of trust in officials; a gradual disengagement from civic obligations tied to a decline in traditional communities; stressful working lives that lead people to feel too busy to vote; and a values shift toward self-seeking and consumerism.

But Jos Gonzalez of Revere, Mass., sees another reason: politicians' trustworthiness, or lack of it. "I don't want to waste my time pushing a button when all those city and state politicians make promises they just don't keep," he says. He does, however, vote in presidential elections.

All these reasons boil down to one thing, experts say: a voter's own lack of motivation.

Indeed, Americans today face fewer barriers to voting than ever before, thanks to reforms in registration law over the past three decades. Moreover, demographic trends in educational levels, age, and mobility all favor higher - not lower - voter turnout.

"We've been making it easier and easier [to vote], and turnout has gone down and down," says Curtis Gans of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. "Until you deal with the lack of motivation, [higher turnout] won't happen."

* Abraham McLaughlin in Boston and Suzi Parker in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.

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