Published on Saturday, October 28, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Trends In Increasing Voter Apathy Point To A Record Lack Of Interest In Casting Ballots This Presidential Election
by John Gray
Despite more than a year of campaigning, and countless hours of television and forests of newspapers devoted to those campaigns, the Nov. 7 election may mark an ignominious new low for U.S. voters.
Just 49 per cent of the electorate cast ballots in the 1996 presidential election, the first time in decades the number of people who cast ballots dipped below 50 per cent of those eligible. Unless there is a sudden surge of interest in the next 10 days, the signs point to another decline.
There are more young Americans now than there were four years ago. This is important because in 1996, only 11 per cent of those eligible to vote for the first time bothered to do so.
Furthermore, fewer people than ever, in percentage terms, watched the summer's political conventions and the three televised presidential debates this fall.
When John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960, a record 62.8 per cent of adults voted. Since then, there has been a steady, pronounced decline in the willingness of Americans to go to the polling booth.
Curtis Gans, who has spent the past 40 years tracking the decline, says the United States now ranks 139th out of 167 of the world's democracies in voter turnout.
"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."
Mr. Gans, director of the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says the dwindling interest in voting stems from the failures of the two main parties and their leaders.
From Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, presidents from both parties have misled and betrayed voters, creating what Mr. Gans calls "the erosion of political trust by the conduct of leadership."
The Democrats tend to rely on their traditional support -- union members, blacks and seniors -- while the Republicans depend on backing from the country's most conservative elements. These patterns continue into the current race.
"We seem to have had an election in which each party, in the pursuit of winning, designed its tactics to pull out its core supporters while leaving the vast majority of the electorate standing on the sidelines," Mr. Gans says.
He is particularly alarmed about the effects of televised attack ads, which undermine debate and savage the honour and image of candidates.
Mr. Gans pointedly observes that television in the U.S. is unregulated, in contrast to Canada. He describes attack ads as broadcast pollution.
"What we have now is consultants running amok, destroying more careers than they help; undermining, distorting and trivializing the political dialogue; eroding reason and the will to vote."
He sees the decline of politics as a reflection of American society: communities destroyed by interstate highways and suburban strip malls, education quality in decline, shared national goals harder and harder to find and young people growing up in homes with parents who do not vote and do not even talk about politics.
Canadians may be tempted to look down on the dismal public commitment of their neighbours to the south. But Mr. Gans observes that Canada has experienced a substantial voter-turnout decline of its own, sliding from 75 per cent in 1984 and 1988 to 67 per cent in 1997. For the past century, voter turnout in Canada has varied from 67 to 79 per cent, and has been above 70 per cent most of the time.
Mr. Gans concedes that all advanced democracies have gone through some decline in voter participation, but none has seen drops as dramatic as those in the United States and Canada.
In a survey of 19 advanced democracies in the five decades from the 1940s to the 1980s, Canada's average voter turnout declined from 13th to 16th place.
In the 1980s, the average was 73 per cent, compared with 90 per cent in New Zealand, 87 in Germany and 71 per cent in Japan.
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