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Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 13:36 GMT
Analysis: The vanishing voter
Polling booth
The queues for the booths have been getting shorter

American voters are increasingly turned off by politics and unlikely to vote.

And the 2002 mid-term Congressional elections, with its record low turnout of around 30%, was no exception.

Turnout in American elections has been falling steadily since the 1970s.

Currently less than half of the electorate bothers to vote in presidential elections, and only one-third are likely to vote in the mid-term Congressional elections.

Americans are increasingly turned off by politics, which they believe is irrelevant to their lives.

And they increasingly believe that there is no difference between the political parties on the issues - a trend confirmed in this election by the dash of both Republicans and Democrats for the (patriotic) middle ground.

Partisans and pressure groups

The low turnout means that pressure groups who can rally supporters - from the National Rifle Association to the American Association of Retired Persons - have disproportionate influence on the electoral process.

And it means that the middle class and rich - who are far more likely to vote than the poor - have a bigger influence on politics than the absolute numbers would suggest.

And in this sense, the low turnout generally helps the Republicans, who are somewhat more likely to be among the rich, and very much less likely to be the poor.

Another big difference is age. Older people - who still remember when politics mattered - tend to vote much more than the young, who feel less of an obligation to vote.

This usually helps the Democrats, and offsets the Republican advantage to some extent.

But this time the greater patriotism among the old, many of whom fought in World War II, meant that they were as likely to support the Republicans as the Democrats.

Extra factors

The decline of interest in politics is a long-term secular trend throughout Western countries, and Britain is no exception.

Turnout in the last UK General Election dropped by more than 10%, partly because it was perceived as no contest.

But in America there are some extra factors that are weakening electoral turnout.

Firstly, the degree of negative campaigning is turning off the voters, according to research at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Thomas Patterson, director of the Vanishing Voter project, told BBC News Online that Americans were turned off by the petty and trivial nature of the US political debate.

Papers
The media has also been blamed for low voter turnout
He said that the large number of elections and referendums in the US election system, including primaries, and the very long campaigns (two years for presidential candidates) had also turned off ordinary voters even as it mobilised the smaller group of activists and partisans.

It is also much more difficult to vote in the United States than many other democracies, including Britain. People in the US have to actively seek to register to vote, and are not automatically registered at the address where they live by the local government.

And, according to Professor Patterson, the US media has also been to blame for trivialising politics and turning it into a beauty contest with no real issues.

And he says that the rise of the internet and round-the-clock television news has made matters worse, as considered analysis has been replaced by instant theatre.

Indeed, in the survey he conducted with the Pew Foundation for the 2000 Presidential election, few voters could identify any policy positions held by the main presidential contenders (Al Gore and George W Bush).

This was even more true in the 2002 mid-terms.

Only one Senator standing for office opposed the Iraq war - Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who was killed during the campaign in a plane crash.


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