September 21, 2003



ON SEPT. 11, 2001 - the day the World Trade Center fell - thousands of New Yorkers were standing on line, waiting to vote in the mayoral primary. In the days following that tragedy, as preparations mounted for a rescheduled primary, the New York City Board of Elections posted a large banner on its website reading, "Vote. Or Liberty is History."

By all accounts, New Yorkers, like Americans everywhere, came to appreciate their liberties even more than usual after Sept. 11. But that hardly affected their urge to vote. Only 13 percent of New York City's voting age population turned out for that rescheduled primary. And only 25 percent voted in the actual mayoral election.

Nor is it just in New York City that voter participation rates have disappointed. In Massachusetts in 2002 just 45 percent of voters turned out, compared to 66 percent when Ted Kennedy was first elected in 1962.

The absent voter

American turnout rates in primaries, municipal elections, and special elections are often so abysmal that they raise a terrifying question: What if an election were held and no one voted? Here are some stunning examples of poor turnout: 1) In Comfort, Texas, a local school board election in 1998 motivated just 17 out of 720 registered voters to cast ballots; 2) In a 1997 statewide special election in Texas only 5 percent of the voting age population participated. This occurred even though then-Governor Bush stumped the state for a week, promising that a "yes" vote would result in a major tax cut. Ironically, one of the people who did not vote was Richard Cheney, then a registered Texas voter.

Poor turnout is hardly a new story in the United States. Numerous efforts have been made to improve America's voting levels over the past four decades. In 1964, the 24th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, abolishing the poll tax. A year later the Voting Rights Act was passed, which made it possible for African-Americans who had faced discrimination in the past to register to vote. Federal law now forbids states from closing the registration books more than 30 days before elections. And most recently, the 1993 Motor Voter Act required that states permit people to register when they apply for or renew drivers' licenses.

Although legal changes have succeeded in making the registration process more user-friendly, they've failed to encourage greater electoral participation. Registration rolls have swelled, but these additions have consisted largely of people with marginal political interest who don't take advantage of their voting opportunities.

I believe that one basic aspect of US politics explains much of why so few Americans vote: American elections are complex and anything but user-friendly. We ask Americans to vote too often and for too many things. Our practice of democracy has been taken too far - asking for more participation than many citizens care to provide. Those who don't vote are those with the least resources to meet these many demands - Americans with less education, life experience, political interest, or partisan attachment.

The young don't vote

When I am asked to identify the one factor that best predicts who votes I always choose age. Young people have long had the lowest turnout rates, which is perhaps why there was relatively little opposition to lowering the voting age to 18 in 1972. But even the most pessimistic analysts could not have foreseen the record low turnout rates of today's youth. According to the Census Bureau, just 32 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in 2000 compared to 68 percent among those over 65 years of age. The generation gap in primaries is even greater. Official statistics provided by local registrars typically show older people being four to 12 times as likely to take part in nomination contests.

If one had to choose a single word to describe the current relationship between candidates and young citizens it would be "neglect." Politicians know who their customers are. Why should they worry about young nonvoters any more than the makers of denture cream worry about people with healthy teeth? Indeed, studies have found that candidates mostly place ads on television programs with older audiences, such as "Jeopardy" or "Wheel of Fortune," and avoid placing ads on shows like syndicated reruns of "Friends," which draws a younger crowd.

While some older voters might envy younger adults for not being exposed to political ads, studies have consistently shown that people learn from political advertising - both positive and negative. Furthermore, as political ads both shape and represent the agenda of any modern campaign, the concerns of young people are being ignored. Rather than focusing campaigns on programs that young people might be interested in, such as job training, candidates discuss health care and retirement issues.

If more young people voted, their voice might profoundly impact the nation's political direction. Survey research consistently indicates that young people are naturally much more supportive of government spending for public schools and jobs programs. They are also more in favor of spending to protect the environment, an equal role for women in society, and abortion rights. In terms of ideology, young people are virtually as likely to say they are liberals as conservatives, whereas among senior citizens conservatives outnumber liberals by 20 percent. In sum, if young people had turnout rates equal to older people, voting behavior and public policy would probably be shifted leftwards.

Notably, had more young people voted in Florida in 2000 Al Gore would probably be president. According to the 2000 Florida exit poll, voters under 30 supported Gore over Bush by a margin of 55 to 40 percent. In contrast, the much more numerous group of Florida voters over 60 favored Bush over Gore by 51 to 47 percent. The fact that only 33 percent of young Floridians voted compared to 69 percent of Florida's elderly population thus probably cost Gore the White House.

Can we change the pattern?

If election observers at Iraq's first post-Saddam election noticed that older people were voting at twice the rates of younger people, it would be pronounced a severe problem. Here in the United States, we are so accustomed to this pattern that it hardly attracts notice. What can be done about it?

If in an ideal democracy everyone votes, what if we required people to participate? This is what Australians did in 1922, when they instituted compulsory voting after their turnout rate fell to 58 percent. Since then, their turnout has never fallen below 90 percent, even though the maximum fine for nonvoting is only about $35 and judges readily accept any reasonable excuse.

Young Australians, like their counterparts in the United States, express relatively little interest in politics. But they vote because they have to. Unlike American youth, when asked if politicians pay attention to their generation, they respond affirmatively.

Although compulsory election attendance would certainly solve our turnout problems, do we really want to force American turnout rates up to 90 percent? People with limited political knowledge who are forced to vote might pick their politicians the same way they choose lottery numbers. In Australia, this is known as the "donkey vote," for people who approach voting like the old children's game. Given Australia's relatively simple electoral process, this is a small proportion of voters; in America it would likely be greater.

Furthermore, compulsory voting goes against the grain of American culture, which treasures individual rights. Indeed, most Americans would probably assert that they have a right not to vote.

Evidence from around the world also indicates that our turnout rates could be increased if we adopted some form of proportional representation. In our winner-take-all system, many Americans rightly perceive that their vote is unlikely to affect election outcomes. Proportional representation changes this perception by awarding legislative seats to small voting blocs. With a number of viable parties to choose from rather than only two, people tend to feel that their party truly embodies their specific interests, and hence they are more likely to vote. In particular, young Americans - like those in Europe - might be motivated to go to the polls to support Green parties that focus on environmental protection.

More parties would come at a price, however. The current system brings diverse groups together under the umbrellas of two heterogeneous parties; a multi-party system would set America's social groups apart from one another. The melting pot culture would no longer be reinforced at the political level. Therefore, proportional representation hardly appears any more in tune with American political ideas than compulsory voting. And Democratic and Republican lawmakers are hardly likely to vote for it, in any event.

Although many states have experimented with policies designed to improve voter turnout, there are no clear success stories. Oregon has recently tried all-mail balloting, but this has increased turnout for municipal and special elections. Texas and other states have experimented with early voting, but voting early has not led to voting often. Absentee voting has been made easier in many states; in California, no reason is necessary to receive a mail ballot. But again the results have been disappointing.

Why Tuesday?

Lest one despair of any means for improving turnout in America, a simple yet effective change could be made in election timing. With an ordinary act of Congress, the date for federal elections could be moved to a leisure day, thereby giving more people more time to vote. The number one reason that people who are registered but fail to vote give for not participating is that they were too busy with work or school on election day. This excuse is particularly prevalent among young people. So why not change election day from a Tuesday to a weekend or holiday? Research has shown turnout is higher in countries that vote during weekends.

Indeed, it is doubtful that any experts on elections would recommend that Iraq emulate the American example and vote on a Tuesday. So if we wouldn't recommend Tuesday elections to other countries, why should we continue this practice ourselves? By joining the modern world and voting on a leisure day, it is likely that we would experience an increase in election turnout, especially among young people.

Martin P. Wattenberg is the author of "Where Have All the Voters Gone?" and a professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine.