WASHINGTON -- More than 80 percent of Americans who have had a chance to vote this year in a presidential primary have turned down the offer.
"Not voting isn't passive any more. Not voting is a way of voting against the political system," said David Mathews, president of the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation.
Still, the political apathy doesn't spread to other areas, according to Rich Harwood, a Maryland consultant. The Kettering Foundation commissioned his public research firm to spend 13 months talking to people around the country about their political attitudes and concerns.
Mr. Harwood said he found "the level of civic energy" and involvement in community or professional activities very strong.
Gallup polls show that more than half of Americans do volunteer work for an average of more than four hours a week.
But many of those people have become anti-partisan and "do not want to be associated with 'politics' in any way," said Mr. fTC Harwood. They view politics, particularly at the national level, as aimless, negative and useless.
"They hear empty debates and see attack ads that are leaving them more frustrated and angry, I suspect, than they were six or nine months ago," Mr. Harwood said. "People aren't expecting answers, but they are yearning for hope that we can manage our problems. They're not getting a sense of that at all."
It's not that most people find it hard to vote; they just question whether it does any good. That was the conclusion of the chief election officers of 42 states at a recent convention of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Deciding there are limits to the registration reforms and voting drives that were emphasized in the 1980s, the state officials voted unanimously to set a three-year goal of figuring out how to change the national political system.
"We're putting together a commission that will be chaired by (Tennessee Secretary of State) Bryant Millsaps to work with Kettering," said Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus. "It will deal with how to reconnect government with people who feel there's nothing going on in government that affects how they live."
In the first 14 presidential primaries, 10.3 million people voted in a Democratic or Republican contest. But 43.3 million people in those states who were old enough to vote didn't go to the polls.
In Maryland, 82.6 percent of the voting-age population failed to vote in the primary March 3, according to the Associated Press.
The low point was reached Tuesday in Rhode Island, where less than 9 percent of the eligible population went to the polls.