Here's a comforting number for those who think Americans have become apathetic about politics: Of those who registered to vote in the last presidential election, 86 percent actually went to the polls. It hardly mattered whether they were white or black or Asian. More than 4 out of 5 cast their ballots.
Here's a less comforting trend: The gender wars have invaded the voting booth. Men are falling behind women in their inclination to vote. And the disparity - some 3 percentage points in 2000 - seems to be widening.
These findings - from a new Census Bureau report - suggest the United States might bolster voter participation by streamlining registration and targeting men. "It looks like once they're registered, the vast majority will get out there and vote," says Amie Jamieson, coauthor of the report and statistician with the Census Bureau. The trick is finding ways to register them.
State voting patterns reinforce the idea that easier registration boosts turnout. For example, North Dakota had the highest voting rate of any state (only Washington, D.C., ranked higher). Slightly more than 70 percent of its voting-age citizens cast ballots in 2000. The state doesn't require any voter registration.
Six states offer same-day registration: Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. All of them except Idaho saw their citizens vote at significantly higher rates than the 60 percent national average. Of course, demographics may partly explain why older and whiter North Dakota votes much more consistently than, say, racially diverse Hawaii, which had the lowest voter-participation rate. White, non-Hispanic voters tend to vote more than the general population.
Another imponderable: would the unregistered population vote with the same regularity as those now registered or is it fundamentally different? "It's hard to say what will work," says Ms. Jamieson. But "I think that [streamlined registration] has something to do with those voting rates."
Because the census tallies the number of people who say they voted rather than those who actually voted, its counts consistently overestimate voting rates, cautions Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, DC. However, the study does break new ground in looking at the ballot battle of the sexes, he says.
For most of the presidential elections since women gained the right to vote, men have proved more likely to vote than women. In 1964, for example, 72 percent of voting-age males participated, versus only 67 percent of voting-age females. But by 1980, the two sexes had reached a statistical tie. Then women began to tip the balance the other way. By 2000, women led men: 56 percent to 53 percent.
While that gap may not prove statistically much different from 1996, it is bigger than in any other election since the Census Bureau began keeping track, Jamieson says. Reasons may include the growing participation of women in the workplace and their average age, which is higher than men's. (Employed people and seniors are more likely to vote than the unemployed and the young.)
Politically, too, there are signs of a shift. "Society is changing the way it values the voices of women," says Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States in Washington, DC.
Yet no one seems satisfied about the failure to reverse the low voter-participation rate. "There is nothing in the ethos that suggests that we have turned the corner on decline," says Mr. Gans