Is it democracy if too few vote? Nonvoting has become a deciding factor in elections in the United States, and the reasons for it are many and complex. They range from disgust and apathy to the Iron Rule of Oligarchy and the wish for a benevolent monarch.

October 11, 1998|By Mike Adams

GEORGE WALLACE, the comedian (of no relation to the late governor), does a monologue based on the dumb things people say. One of his favorites is, "Don't kick a man when he's down." That's stupid, Wallace reasons. Why shouldn't you kick a man when he's down? After all, "your foot is closer to his head."

This seems to sum up Bill Clinton's situation as he looks up at the big foot of impeachment hovering over his head.

Day after day, Clinton's critics blame him for everything from Wall Street's woes to America's moral decay to government gridlock. Clinton is responsible for it all, they say.

Some political pundits predict that the Clinton scandal will depress voter turnout in the November elections. Perhaps their predictions will ring true, but they're overlooking an important point. In election after election, the United States ranks near the bottom among Western nations in voter participation.

In the recent German elections, 82.3 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls.

In 1996, less than half of America's voting -age population - 49.08 percent - cast ballots in the Clinton-Dole race. In 1992, after many Americans had lost jobs to corporate downsizing and a lingering recession, only 55.23 percent sought redress at the ballot box.

Just a generation ago, U.S. voter participation was higher. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race drew 62.77 percent of the possible voters, the highest since 1920, when women got the vote. The figures remained in the low 60-percent range during the 1964 and 1968 presidential races, but 1972 signaled a downward trend when only 55.21 percent cast ballots. Since then, roughly half of the voting-age public has gone to the polls during presidential elections.

Participation in off-year elections is worse. Only 36.52 percent turned out for the 1990 House races, a fraction higher than the 36.40 percent in 1986 - the lowest figure since 1960.

Ironically, nonvoting has increased despite efforts to stimulate voting. The National Voter Registration Act went into effect in 1995, requiring states to make registration easier by allowing people to mail in their forms or register when they obtain or renew drivers' licenses or apply for welfare or disability services.

The 1996 presidential election was the first to be held since the voter bill was enacted; yet voter participation dropped. In Maryland, though the act has added 300,000 voters to the rolls, turnout has seen no appreciable increase, said Tom Surock, the state election board's director of voter registration.

Surock said more Marylanders have registered, but turnout percentages have dropped. He said unofficial figures show that only 29 percent of the registered voters came out for last month's gubernatorial primary. In 1994, 40 percent voted in the primary.

"Of the 21.3 million [Americans] who reported that they registered, but did not vote in the 1996 election, more than one in five reported that they did not vote because they could not take time off work or school because they were too busy," said a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Some 17 percent said they were "not interested or didn't care" about the elections; 15 percent said they were ill, disabled or had a family emergency; 13 percent did not prefer any of the candidates; 11 percent said they were out of town; 4 percent said they forgot to vote; 4 percent said they had no way to get to the polls; and 1 percent said the lines at the polls were too long. The remainder cited other reasons for not voting or declined to give a reason.

Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the drop in voter participation "is not a good statement" about the health of the U.S. political system.

Nonvoting indicates that many Americans have lost faith in the government, Norris said, adding that nonvoters often believe that their votes don't count because the politicians don't listen to them. The people who vote tend to be driven by partisan politics and are more affluent and better educated than nonvoters.

Frederick L. Voigt, executive director of the Committee of 70, a watchdog group in Philadelphia, said television has changed campaigning for the worse.

"Television does not communicate ideas. Television communicates emotions," Voigt said. He added that candidates' ads are designed to push the "hot buttons" of the people most likely to vote for them. Consequently, the candidate's identification with a political party is not as important as how his or her personality clicks with potential voters via television.

Voigt pointed out that candidates are concerned only about energizing their constituencies, not the entire electorate. "It only takes 51 percent of the vote to win," he said.

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