Magazine article USA TODAY

Setting the Record Straight concerning Low Voter Turnout

Magazine article USA TODAY

Setting the Record Straight concerning Low Voter Turnout

Article excerpt

EVERY YEAR as Election Day approaches, especially during presidential campaigns, critics of American politics decry low voter turnout. They note that it has declined steadily since the halcyon days of the 1960s. Some trace that drop to the baleful influence of "big money'" on voters, The large sums raised and spent by both parties are said to alienate voters and discourage participation. After all, if campaign contributors run the show, why bother to vote?

Other critics argue that sharply critical advertising (so-called negative ads) discourages voting by fostering cynicism about the political process. Some self-styled reformers contend that the harm done to democracy by big money and negative ads justifies government efforts to restrict campaign finance and regulate the tone of campaign commercials. In sum, critics believe the decline in voter turnout is a sign of sickness in the body politic and that limits on political liberty are needed to save the patient. The critics' diagnosis, however, is wrong and their cure unnecessary.

Some pundits have made a profession of studying and lambasting the failure of Americans to live up to their political obligations. Curtis Gans, an analyst often quoted on this issue, has written of the country's "disintegrating democracy," where "the nation that prides itself on being the best example of government of, for and by the people is rapidly becoming a nation whose participation is limited to the interested or zealous few."

Complaints about voter turnout come in two versions. Sometimes, critics say that the U.S. turnout is among the lowest in developed nations. That is accurate. Many countries in Europe have a higher percentage of voters. Yet, the differences between U.S. and European voting levels are not necessarily a problem. Why should the U.S. be judged by European standards? We have a different history and political culture than most el Europe. Government is smaller in the U.S., and politics matter less to the society and its citizens.

Moreover, has turnout in the U.S. really been declining steadily? Experts traditionally have measured voter turnout by dividing the number of voters by some measure of potential voters. They have gauged potential voters by the voting-age population of a state, a number easily obtained from the Census Bureau. That procedure does paint a picture of a nation slowly abandoning the polls. However, that way of measuring turnout is misleading.

Political scientist Michael McDonald has shown that the number of Americans actually eligible to vote progressively has become smaller than the number of Americans of voting age. In 2004, for example, McDonald estimates that the U.S. will have 17,500,000 people of voting age who are not eligible to vote. In estimating voter turnout, this difference changes everything. Calculations based on eligible voters (not the voting-age population) show that turnout in presidential and off-year elections has remained roughly flat for about 30 years.

McDonald confirms that voter turnout has gone down from its peak in the 1960s, though it has been higher than many experts have thought. However, the decline has not been slow and steady. Instead, turnout has followed two paths, one relatively high in the 1950s and 1960s and a lower path after the mid 1970s, Turnout dropped into the second, lower path between 1968 and 1974. The trend since the mid 1970s has been flat or slightly downward.

A road divided

The two paths of turnout provide a clue to their cause. A cause of the decline must have either increased or decreased sharply from 1968 to 1974 and then have maintained that larger or smaller value liar the next 30 years. Campaign spending does not fit either scenario: spending has risen steadily since the 1960s. In addition, negative advertising has varied in ways that undermine the belief that such communications have driven down turnout.

Why would increases in campaign spending cause declines in voter turnout? …

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