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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 vote.

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 democracy.

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 said.

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 opted out.

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 people anymore."

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 adults.

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," Patterson said.

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 said.

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 said.

2000 The Washington Post

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