Why the poll booths of America are empty

Mark Mills cares passionately about community issues. He calls local officials and writes letters to the editor about everything from school spending to local tax rates. Yet he rarely votes. Currently, he's not even registered.

"To me, politicians have become so removed from the real world," says the middle-aged Mr. Mills, a computer technician with a PhD who lives in Denver. "Politics is just so ... political."

As the nation's politicians, parties, and press gear up for the first elections of the millennium, more and more Americans are dropping out of the conventional political process - even civic-minded people like Mills.

Indeed, while the United States often holds itself up as a model of democracy, it has chronically produced one of the lowest voter participation rates in the Western world since World War II. It hardly seems what the Founding Fathers had in mind 224 years ago when they set forth a blueprint for a new kind of representative government, one deriving "just powers from the consent of the governed."

Since 1960, when modern-day US presidential voting peaked at 63 percent, turnout has declined by 14 percent, to less than half the voting-age population. This November, it could drop even further. Experts have been grappling with the downward drift for years, but never more than now. Dozens of groups, from Harvard

University to the World Wrestling Federation, are devoting resources to understanding and, they hope, reversing the decline in voting.

"We have a crisis of the erosion of democracy at the grass roots," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Walter Dean Burnham, another expert on voting, says the attitudes associated with low participation - the apathy, the anger, the negative views of government - may be even more dangerous than low turnout itself. In fact, he notes, studies show that people who do vote are just as cynical about politics as people who don't.

"You've got all this surging just below the surface, even at a time when the context - peace and prosperity - is so favorable," says Mr. Burnham, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Still, many people, like Mills, are finding new ways to participate in politics - just not at the ballot box. So, at the start of a new century, the question looms: Is American democracy broken, or just being transformed?

'Doers' who don't

Karl Stoecker of Miami, a lanky, blond magazine photographer in his late 50s, has one foot inside the mainstream and one foot outside. Every morning, he likes to go to the ocean to chat with the young surfer/philosopher crowd. He also has two daughters in public school - and says he's fine with paying taxes to support their education.

"But I won't help [politicians] push their system by voting," says Mr. Stoecker. They "cater to business interests, not to the public's."

Jill Davidson, a 30-something massage therapist and restaurant hostess in Miami, laughs when asked if she votes. "I don't know where to go register," she says, flush from a workout at the gym. "And reason No. 2, I'm just lazy."

Consciously or not, these two people represent a significant element in the American psyche: the notion that the right not to vote is as valid as the right to vote.

If they were from Australia or Belgium, where voting is mandatory, they would face a fine on the order of a parking ticket for a "no-show" on election day. In Australia's two most recent elections, turnout there broke 80 percent.

Stoecker and Ms. Davidson represent another important observation about nonvoters in America: Those over age 45 tend to be more angry and alienated, while those below 45 tend toward indifference.

It may be, observers say, that older nonvoters grew up with higher expectations of what government can accomplish, while the younger generation came of age when disillusionment with government was already in place. Since the 1960s, a steady stream of events - the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-contra, the Lewinsky matter - has reinforced cynicism about Washington.

Still, attitudes and behaviors of nonvoters vary widely: Some appear so intimidated by the complexity of the issues involved that they don't vote, almost out of respect for democracy. Others are absorbed by concerns at home and work, and don't see the need to become civically engaged.

And then there are those like Mills, the activist in Colorado, who feels he can have a greater impact through direct, local action, rather than handing his mandate for action to someone else by voting.

In a 1996 poll of 1,001 likely nonvoters, the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., found that nearly one-third of nonvoters are so-called "doers" like Mills: They are active in their communities, pay attention to the news, and tend to be educated.

Still, they often don't vote because they "don't have time" or because "politicians spend too much time on petty things."

If such social connectedness and community involvement were rising overall, then the decline in voting might not be as troublesome to observers. But, in fact, the nation's "social capital" - involvement in community networks - has steadily eroded for the past two generations, according to Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone."

Once-robust civic organizations, like the League of Women Voters, are struggling to remain active in some communities. Weekly church attendance - which correlates strongly with voting - is down. Newspaper reading and TV-news viewing, which also tie closely to voting, are declining significantly as each generation gives way to the next.

"Generational replacement," in fact, is the single biggest factor in the decline in turnout, says Mr. Putnam, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. As the World War II generation - known for high civic involvement - dies off and is replaced by their grandchildren, voting levels are going to continue to decline.

Young adults typically vote at lower levels than older, more settled adults. But fewer and fewer young people are converting into voters as they grow older.

Putnam himself places the largest share of blame on television: Since 1984, household viewing has averaged more than seven hours a day. "It's really quite lethal to civic engagement," he says. "And I'm not talking about watching 'The NewsHour.' "

Dinner-table index

Dan Bryan, a judge from Auburn, Neb., stands at the foot of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington and quietly reads the inscriptions on the wall.

"I always vote," says Judge Bryan. "Voting is a way of memorializing them," he adds, gesturing toward the statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president.

He lobbies his three children to vote, too, even though they exhibit the usual characteristics that weigh against voting among young adults - such as being away at school or simply on the move.

Daughter Colleen, an undergrad at Loyola University in Chicago, confirms that she does indeed vote. Usually. She missed the Nebraska primary, even though dad had sent her an absentee ballot. "I didn't know any of the issues," she admits.

Behaviors learned from our first teachers - parents - are perhaps the most deeply instilled. But as families get busier and spend less leisure time together, including at dinner, that becomes less true. In some families, dedication to voting may be a casualty.

Another factor, alluded to by Ms. Bryan, is the amount of work it takes to cast an informed vote. As initiatives and referenda proliferate, voters joke that they need to enroll in graduate school to understand all the issues. In California, for example, this year's voters' guide explaining ballot measures is a Michener-esque 74 pages long.

Beyond the explosion in initiatives - some of which involve hot topics and actually drive up turnout - Americans are asked to vote far too often, analysts say. Between primary and general elections, from president down to dog-catcher, voters can end up going to the polls four times a year.

"We have this system that's gotten more and more complicated and is asking more and more of citizens," says Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. "Basically, people don't want to have this much control."

Even many Americans who try to vote regularly say the political system isn't working. "I think the system's sick," says Ken Kozol, an electrical engineer from Long Grove, Iowa, who nevertheless votes "as much as I can."

Mr. Kozol blames the dual party system, for one thing, saying he'd "sure like more diversity" among candidates. His wife, Sandy, who home-schools daughters Amy and Lara, adds, "You pick the top two candidates, and that's all you hear about, and then you're sick of hearing about them."

But for those Americans who vote less often than the Kozols, overexposure of the major-party candidates isn't the problem. It may be too little exposure. In recent years, the parties have used increasingly sophisticated technology to pinpoint where "their" voters are, and target them, to the exclusion of non- or sometime-voters, who don't get the phone calls, e-mails, and regular mail that drive up turnout.

In other words, parties and candidates are not in the business of producing large turnouts. The key, for them, is to get more votes than the other guy, not to promote the lofty goal of greater democratic involvement.

Many nonvoters also point to the explosion of money in politics as a reason for staying away. Rick Romero, a construction worker and father of three from Denver, says he feels his vote doesn't count: Those who get into office are simply the ones with the biggest "war chests."

Likewise, poll after poll shows that the public intensely dislikes negative campaigning. Yet negative races often attract big turnouts - usually because they're closely contested. And in races where the most money is spent, turnout is highest, because they also tend to be the tightest battles.

Another player that takes some blame for declining turnout is the media, which tend to focus on campaign tactics and brawls rather than issues. The "civic journalism" movement, an effort to report news in a way that is more responsive to a community's needs, was launched in the early 1990s, but with mixed results.

Ultimately, though, it may be candidates themselves who can spur greater interest in voting. When John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, captivated the nation with his drive for the GOP presidential nomination, it was his air of straight-shooting "authenticity" that brought some nonvoters into the "small d" democratic fold.

What Mr. McCain's candidacy showed is that, when people feel inspired, they will turn out. In this year's New Hampshire primary, which featured hot races in both major parties, voter turnout topped 80 percent.

It's not all bad

Declining turnout has become the poster child for the view that the American political system is in distress - or, at least, has lost the faith of the people.

But, in fact, the two phenomena may be unrelated, says Ruy Teixeira, author of two books on voter turnout. Turnout now is not catastrophically lower than it was in 1960 - 63 percent - when government was viewed as more responsive, he says.

He also notes that turnout in most other major democracies has been dropping as well. Switzerland, the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development with lower turnout than the US, has declined by 39 percentage points since the 1950s. Only two countries have seen an increase: Denmark and Sweden.

To some, low turnout is a sign of satisfaction with government. Indeed, turnout in the US spiked up to 55 percent in 1992, when voters were unhappy with the state of the economy. But the low-turnout-equals-satisfaction argument fails to acknowledge the overwhelming survey evidence of public cynicism and unhappiness with government. In fact, it is older Americans - those with the highest turnout - who are most satisfied with government.

Still, many experts predict turnout this fall could be slightly higher than it was in 1996, when the nation approved of President Clinton's job performance and Republican nominee Bob Dole looked weak. This time around, the race is expected to be one of the closest in the post-WWII era, which could add to turnout.

Weighing against that is growing public sentiment that Washington just isn't as important as it used to be. Betsy Siegel, a wardrobe stylist for TV commercials in Miami, never voted in a presidential election until recently. Yet her real interest remains local issues - the neighborhood park, Christmas lunches for needy children.

"I don't know enough about Congress," she says. "I don't know how much they really do. And I think the president is more or less a symbol."

-- Jillian Lloyd in Denver, Clotilde Luce in Miami, and Liz Marlantes in Boston contributed to this series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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