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banner Tuesday, 11 January, 2000, 16:38 GMT
The United States of Apathy?

Enthusiasm for politics and politicians is fading fast
By Kevin Anderson in Washington

The United States might regard itself as the symbol of democracy around the world, but its citizens are hardly model voters.

America has among the lowest voter turnout of any democracy in the world based on participation in presidential and mid-term elections.
Signs of decline
In 1996 voter participation fell below 50%, the first time since 1924 and the second lowest since 1824
Since the 1960s voter participation has fallen by more than 25%
Turnout amongst voters aged 18-24 in the 1996 presidential election was 30%
Turnout among young voters in the 1994 mid-terms was just 15%
According to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) over the last 30 years voter turnout has declined dramatically producing a series of historic lows.

It is the largest and longest decline in the nation's history - today 25 million Americans who used to vote no longer do so.

Curtis Gans, head of CSAE and a leading expert on voter behaviour, cautions that it is too early to talk about whether there will be a lower turnout in the 2000 polls, but he says the trend towards declining turnout continues.

"There are factors that would argue for a lower turnout," he says.

Even issues of great public concern are failing to persuade voters to turn up at polling stations

His organisation has witnessed a steady erosion of interest by young people to participate, and their disinterest only increases as they grow older.

Areas such as the South, where voter participation has remained relatively high, are now showing declines, and even issues of great public concern are failing to persuade voters to turn up at polling stations.

Interest in the presidential race has been low and, despite presidential debates and a surge by challengers against the frontrunners, polls show that overall interest has not increased.

A poll conducted by the Pew Centre for the People and the Press found that few Americans are paying close attention to the race. Only 16% of the public are following news about candidates very closely, while interest in the campaign has not meaningfully increased since July 1999 despite competitive contests for both parties' nominations.


This trend towards lower voter turnout has occurred during a time when everything has argued against it, Mr Gans said.

Fewer and fewer Americans are bothering to turn out and vote

The so-called motor-voter law that allows people to register to vote when they receive a driver's license has "made registration and participation easier," he says.

The demographic factors that are thought to influence voter behaviour also run contrary to the lower levels of participation.

Over the last 30 years, the American population has aged, grown more educated and become more geographically stable, but despite these factors voter turnout has declined.

No quick fix

But is this trend caused by apathy or alienation of the electorate? According to Mr Gans "the standard joke is 'I don't know and I don't care.'"

He says the causes of the decline are complex and "not subject to a quick fix."

A series of scandals has lead to rising cyncism towards politics and politicians

Reciting a litany of lies American presidents have told the public - from Nixon's infamous "I am not a crook comment" to Bill Clinton's more recent "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" - Mr Gans says "we have eroded our trust in leadership."

Cynicism has been increasing in the United States since the 1920s, and the reasons he cites read like a lesson in 20th Century American history.

The United States has endured several shocks to its system, especially in the last 30 years beginning with the Vietnam War and continuing with Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan Administration and most recently with President Clinton's impeachment.

People are left with no recourse but not to vote

Curtis Gans
Mr Gans also sees a loss of community with a rise of suburbs and strip malls and the decline of the family farm.

Television and a proliferation of channels with new cable and satellite services have created an "atomisation" of society, he says. Families lead increasingly stressful lives as two wage earners try to earn as much as one wage earner used to bring home.

Where once political parties used to help voters sort through the issues, now they serve only as a service centres for fund raising and consultant services for candidates. Meanwhile the parties and candidates reliance on barrages of attack ads paint such grim pictures of rivals that "people are left with no recourse but not to vote".

"It's a powerful reason for lack of motivation."

Finance reform overblown

But of all the reasons for the decline in voter participation, the increasing amount of money pumped into politics is not one of them Mr Gans says, despite its high profile in the present presidential campaign.

Republican John McCain has made campaign finance reform a focus of his campaign

Campaign finance reform, he says, is "the most overblown issue in American politics."

Certainly, when asked what issues are most pressing to them, most Americans put education and healthcare top of their lists, with campaign finance reform coming somewhere near the bottom.

One way being looked at for lowering the barriers and increasing voter participation is via the internet, a medium which coincidentally attracts a large number of young, politically disillusioned males.

However, Mr Gans and other experts in voting behaviour argue that the net should not be seen as the silver bullet solution for a revival of the democratic process.

Politicians and campaign managers will have to work hard to narrow the gulf between them and the people they are ostensibly elected to serve.

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See also:

03 Nov 98 | Americas
Spaceman Glenn blasts voter apathy
30 Oct 98 | US midterms
Turnout key to US election
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