As Turnout Falls, Apathy Emerges As Driving Force
By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, Washington Post,
Saturday 4 November 2000; Page A01
Most Americans do not reject voting because they're angry or
disenchanted with politics. Few nonvoters avoid going to the polls
because they're disabled or infirm, or because they aren't eligible to
In this age of instant celebrity and media spectacle, the single
biggest reason why half of all Americans will not cast ballots on
Tuesday is because they are bored by politics and indifferent to the
political process, according to new surveys of nonvoters.
According to Federal Election Commission estimates, turnout in
presidential and off-year elections has been in precipitous decline
since the mid-1960s. Some political scientists, citing other data,
claim there has been no significant drop in the voting. But both sides
agree: Too many Americans have opted to stand on the sidelines of
An estimated 100 million Americans won't go to the polls on Election
Day--about as many as will vote. These nonvoters are generally
younger: The average age of all registered voters is 49; nonvoters, on
average, are 10 years younger. Nonvoters are less affluent and not as
well educated. The differences in voting patterns between men and
women, and between blacks and whites, are small.
Nearly four in 10 of these nonvoters say they don't vote because they
care little about politics and public affairs.
But apathy is only one reason why many Americans don't vote. One in
four nonvoters--26 percent--doesn't participate out of anger with
politics and politicians. But these deeply cynical nonvoters aren't
the Angry White Males of the mid-1990s, the survey found. Today, women
may outnumber men within the ranks of the alienated.
Another 25 percent of all nonvoters are disenchanted with
politics--not angry, but dismayed by the incessant spin, the constant
drone of campaign ads and the vast amounts of special-interest money
that saturate contemporary campaigns.
And one in seven simply can't vote. Some of these nonvoters have
recently moved and aren't registered at their new addresses. Some
aren't yet citizens, and still others are disabled or infirm and can't
get to the polls.
A total of 1,028 randomly selected adults were interviewed as part of
the Vanishing Voter project under the direction of Thomas E.
Patterson and Marvin Kalb of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein
Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. These data were
supplemented with a sample of 2,313 nonvoters who were interviewed for
Washington Post tracking surveys in the past two weeks.
Four years ago, fewer than half of all adults voted for president. In
the 1998 off-year election, slightly more than a third--36
percent--cast ballots for House and Senate races. This year, despite a
close presidential election and the control of Congress hanging in the
balance, many experts are forecasting another low-turnout election.
It may seem puzzling that many Americans could be bored with this
year's presidential race, which seems at times to have been waged on
late-night television and daytime talk shows. But they are.
"Either way, it's not going to affect me in the long run
. . . whichever guy gets in there," said Dave Starner, 31, of
Columbus, Ohio. "For crying out loud, we're living in America,
how bad can it get?"
Apathetic voters have always been a fixture in American
politics. "These are the classic citizens who have no sense of
civic duty," said Patterson, a professor of political science at
Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "They aren't
interested in politics, they have no commitment in keeping up with
public affairs, and no real attachments to the political system."
And their numbers may be increasing. A few decades ago, apathetic
nonvoters made up about 10 percent of the electorate, but in the
Post/Harvard poll, about 13 percent of all adults were apathetic. And
this group "will probably grow in size with time. Apathy is
habitual. And it will grow because today's young adults are measurably
less interested in politics than their predecessors," Patterson
In contrast to the easygoing indifference of apathetic voters,
alienated nonvoters are the angry men and women of U.S. politics.
These Americans, about one out of every four nonvoters, are so
disgusted with politicians and the political process that they've
As a group, they're more likely to agree that "most politicians
are liars and crooks," a view expressed by about half of all
nonvoters. And they also are more likely to believe that
"candidates will say anything to get elected," a sentiment
shared by more than eight in 10 nonvoters.
Margaret Mattas of New York is an alienated voter. "I've just been
disgusted with politics in general these past years," she said.
"Who is there to vote for? It doesn't seem like anybody is for the
Many nonvoters such as Mattas are probably lost forever to democracy,
Patterson said. Their cynicism is too deep and too corrosive to be
washed away by even the most sweeping reform.
There is, however, hope for another group of nonvoters identified in
the survey. These Americans share some of the mistrustfulness but
little of the anger of alienated voters. Patterson calls them the
"disenchanted," and they comprise about one in four nonvoting
These nonvoters aren't so much repelled by politics as they are by the
way politics is practiced. They are among the eight in 10 nonvoters
who say "campaign money has too much influence in politics."
And they are disproportionately represented in the majority of
nonvoters who say there's too much partisan bickering in Washington.
But they do follow current events, suggesting they may not always be
nonvoters. "The disenchanted have a lot in common with those who
do vote; a positive change in the tone and style of campaigning might
lead them to participate in the next election or at least retard an
increase in the proportion of Americans in this category,"
The final group of nonvoters is the smallest but most diverse of the
four groups. They are the disconnected, and make up about one in seven
nonvoters. Many can't get to the polls because of advanced age or
disability. This group also includes nonvoters who recently changed
address and are not yet registered. Many want to vote, but can't--at
least not yet.
Rachel Dunn is one of these temporarily disconnected voters, a group
growing in number as Americans become increasingly mobile. Dunn has
just moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where she's a dietician in a local
hospital. She likely will register to vote sometime--just not
now. "I don't know the officials around here that well, and when
you go to vote, you see the presidential candidates but you also see
all those other officials who are running, and you really should know
something about them to vote."
Overall, Patterson said, beyond the categories are two disturbing
trends in nonvoting patterns: the precipitous falloff of voting among
young adults, and the growing gap between the voting habits of the
rich and the poor. Voting among all age groups is in decline, and the
young have always voted in smaller numbers. "But there's a deeper
story to be told here," Patterson said. "Younger voters are
pulling away faster than other groups."
Other research by Patterson suggests why: People who came of age in
the 1980s and 1990s don't follow the news or talk about politics as
much as earlier generations of young adults, largely because they were
raised in families where politics wasn't a topic of discussion.
Theresa Holloway is 18 years old and would be voting in her first
election on Tuesday--if she were voting. "I don't follow much of
it; politics is just something that doesn't interest me," said
Holloway, of Walterboro, S.C. "I think that's pretty true of most
of the people I went to school with." It's also true of other
members of her family: "None of us votes," she said.
Equally troubling to Patterson is the vast difference in voting
between the rich and the poor--a participation gap that Patterson said
is unparalleled in other democratic countries. "In other Western
democracies, there's maybe a 5 percent difference in voting between
those at the bottom of the income ladder and those at the top," he
Not so here. The Post/Harvard survey found that about half of all
adults with household incomes of less than $25,000 a year are voters,
compared to three out of four adults with incomes of $75,000 or more.
The income gap in voting plays out in policy. Voters, who are more
affluent, demand different things from government--and their demands
are heard by politicians who court their votes. Nonvoters have
different needs. But why should politicians listen?
In the Post/Harvard poll, people were asked what the top priority
should be for spending the budget surplus. Only one in four voters
wants to spend this extra money on domestic programs. But nearly
half--45 percent--of all nonvoters say they want the surplus spent on
education, health care and other social programs. And voters favor
using the surplus to cut taxes by a 2-1 margin over nonvoters.
Can anything be done to encourage voting? Yes, at least a little, said
Patterson and his research colleagues.
"We don't make it easy to vote, said Tami Buhr, research
coordinator for the Shorenstein Center, who analyzed the survey
results. "Election Day is not a national holiday. It's not on a
weekend; it's on a weekday. That means that people have to fit into
their daily lives."
Circumstances could propel more people to the polls. Patterson
suggests facetiously that "we should give young people what they
haven't had: a crisis. A Vietnam War, a Depression . . . some shock to
the system. That will pull them back."
Absent a crisis, the remedies are less obvious. Today's politics and
politicians are challenged by the generalized mistrust and
disenchantment with politics that's shared by both voters and
nonvoters. "The political class has to figure out how to conduct
its business in a way that speaks to public values and stop making
politics into a game played out by competing factions," Patterson
2000 The Washington Post