The Turnout Problem

Despite improvements in communications and transportation, and nearly 100% literacy, turnout in elections, as measured by the percent of eligible voters that does in fact vote, has decline in the last 100 years. This generalization applies to both elections in "presidential" years (the president is being elected such as 1996) and "off-year" or congressional years such as 1994.

The accompanying figure shows the trends. It also suggests some points worth thinking about.

What explains the decline and persistently low level of voting in the United States. Many social scientists, journalists, and others cite individual characteristics like socio-economic standing. People at the bottom of the social ladder--those with less than a high school education or workers in service industries--less likely to vote than college graduates and professionals. Alternatively voting seems to be strongly associated with psychological factors like interest in and knowledge about politics. Hence, in view of freedom of speech and universal suffrage (practically all adults have the right to vote), it's easy to conclude that failure to take advantage of this freedom represents a personal rejection of an important civic duty. In this sense, non-voters have only themselves to blame. Or at least their lack of participation stems from individual causes because the electoral "system" is open to all who want to be part of it.

Yet this conclusion troubles other analysts who believe that structural or institutional factors affect turnout. The causes they cite include, among others,

All of these factors suggest that non-voting on one level may be a personal decision. But it's a decision that current structures and practices encourage citizens to make.

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