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Election Turnout Drops; U.S. Too Busy to Vote
By John Whitesides
October 29, 2002

Susan Peak has advanced diplomas, a good job and lots of worries about what a war with Iraq might mean for her son in the Army Reserves -- but she's not sure if she'll vote next week.

"I don't have the time. It's terrible, I know," said Peak, of New Britain, Connecticut, the wellness coordinator for a visiting nurses association. "It's in the middle of flu season and I'm in charge of all the flu shots in the area."

Not even proximity to one of the nation's few competitive congressional races, the battle of incumbents between Connecticut Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson and Democratic Rep. Jim Maloney, can lure her into a polling booth.

"I'm not sure it would make any difference if I voted," she said. "I'm not stupid -- I have two master's degrees and I'm thinking 'What difference does it make?"'

Peak is not alone. Fewer than four of every 10 eligible Americans are expected to go to the polls in next Tuesday's mid-term election, challenging for the worst national turnout since 1942, when 35.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

That will extend a dismal four-decade slide in electoral turnout fueled by plunging voter participation among the young. A flurry of new state laws designed to make it easier to register and vote has done little to stem the tide.

"The problem with turnout is motivation," said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "People don't see a reason to vote. None of the procedural things make a dent in that."

Gans cites plenty of reasons for the trend, from the decline in civic institutions to the rise of television and the political attack ad. At its heart, he said, is the cynicism spawned by Vietnam, Watergate and other Washington scandals, or what he calls "I-am-not-a-crook, Iran-contra, read-my-lips, I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman."

Low Trust

"We have a lower level of trust in our institutions than we have had since the 1920s, or probably of all time," Gans said.

The decline has been worst among the young. The voting rate among 18- to 20-year-olds fell by 40 percent since 1972, but increased by 20 percent in voters 75 and older since 1964. Those with the lowest incomes and least education also have seen sharper drops in turnout.

With U.S. voter participation already among the lowest of any world democracy, the trends are alarming, said Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

"There isn't a magic bullet, there are a lot of factors that turn people off the system," he said, noting the limited political choices, onset of attack ads and modern political marketing as factors.

He cited the refusal by Democrats to make a political stand against war with Iraq, and the Republican hesitance to debate the Bush administration's proposals to privatize Social Security, as examples of the sort of pragmatic politics that alienate voters by not giving them a real choice.

"At the end of the day, the parties aren't looking at ways to engage people," he said.

Chris Hawkins, a paint salesman in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said he would not vote this year despite living in a state with one of the country's hottest Senate races between Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and Republican Rep. John Thune.

"It's not going to really affect me whether I vote or not," Hawkins said. "I guess I've never thought my vote mattered. I don't want to take the time."

Parties and labor unions have funneled more resources this year into voter turnout drives, which are expected to be crucial in a few dozen close House races and a half-dozen key Senate races that could determine which party holds power.

Close, high-profile races can boost turnout, and voter participation is always much higher in presidential election years than in mid-term elections like this year.

But recent efforts to liberalize state laws, making it easier to register and allowing mail voting, early voting and lengthened polling hours, have had little impact.

Voters in 31 states are now able to vote before Nov. 5 this year. In Oregon, where all ballots are cast by mail, there has been no sign of a uniform increase in turnout, Gans said.

With fewer voters participating, it becomes easier for the highly motivated to have an impact, particularly in primaries where the turnout is even lower than in general elections, he said.

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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