Magazine article Insight on the News

Why Americans Refuse to Vote

Magazine article Insight on the News

Why Americans Refuse to Vote

Article excerpt

The United States is proud to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. But when it comes to getting its citizens to vote on Election Day, the nation ranks with the world's laggards. Among Western industrialized nations, only tiny Switzerland has lower voter turnouts than ours. This has been a long-standing problem in this country, yet historians and social scientists were rarely concerned with it before World War II. Voter turnout suffered a big drop in the 1920s and fluctuated after the New Deal realignment of the 1930s, when many people switched parties. It reached a crest in 1960, when 62.8 percent of eligible voters went to the polls - yet even then, participation was much lower than it had been, on average, during the last half of the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy appointed a commission, chaired by Richard Scammon, to investigate the phenomenon of nonvoting and to recommend ways to improve turnout. The commission, finding that Americans were much less likely to vote than most Europeans and Canadians, produced an excellent report which stressed that citizens in this country faced greater obstacles to voting.

The report noted that the United States required its potential electorate to make two decisions: first to register to vote, often a considerable time before the election cycle, and then, only if registered ,to vote on Election Day. Most other countries have a less cumbersome process. In Canada and Britain, state employees go house to house, much like census takers, registering people to vote. Hence, citizens are relieved of taking the initiative to register; their decision to cast a ballot is made on Election Day, reflecting how they feel at the end of campaigns after exposure to all that heat and glitter.

In addition, the American electoral system has emphasized length of residence in localities. Some states have required at least one year's residence in the same area; others, a stay of some months. Most countries with higher voting rates than ours do not have lengthy residency requirements. Also, some countries have permanent registration, as contrasted with the once predominant American practice, of requiring registration before each election or of striking voters from the rolls if they failed to vote in one election.

The Scammon commission recommended that the conditions for voting be eased greatly. Kennedy agreed and recommended legislative changes to Congress and the states. Many of the reforms were enacted. Voter signups were made permanent in many states. Residential requirements were relaxed and the number of ways to register were increased. And yet, as Ruy A. Teixeira documents in his essay, the proportion of the electorate that voted dropped from more than three-fifths in 1968 to about one-half in the 1988 presidential contest. The numbers are much lower for state, congressional and local contests and for primaries, including those for the presidency. The overall figures went up slightly in 1992 when there were three major candidates for the White House, but the results of local elections in 1993 do not indicate this increase is holding.

These findings, of course, do not mean that the emphasis on structural impediments is wrong. Clearly more people will vote if it is easier to do so. What the continued falloff since the release of the Scammon commission report suggests is that some larger macrosocietal factors have been in play to reduce Americans' willingness to vote.

Looking at survey data, as Bill Schneider and I did in our book, The Confidence Gap, one notices a large drop in the confidence that Americans have in institutions, particularly political ones. Beginning in the 1960s, Americans grew increasingly uneasy about the efficacy of their leaders. They lost confidence that changes brought about by elections would improve the situation much. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, each U.S. president turned out to be a disappointment to the electorate. …

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