Why is There so Much Voter Apathy in U.S. Elections?

on September 19 2011 4:32 PM
Election workers await voters during a lull at a polling station at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, November 4, 2008.
Election workers await voters during a lull at a polling station at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, November 4, 2008. Reuters

One of the consistent themes underlying U.S. politics has been voter apathy – large numbers of eligible Americans boycott participating in elections.

According to official government data, between 1960 and 2008, the percentage of eligible voters who have bothered to cast their ballots during the presidential elections have ranged from about 49 percent to 63 percent. This means that as much as half of American voters don't care enough to decide which candidate would make a good chief executive.

In fact, the 1960 election (the very tight battle between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon), represented a fifty-year peak in turnout, with 63.1 percent of the voting-age population casting a vote. The lowest turnout was recorded in 1996 (when incumbent Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole), when only 49.1 percent voted.

In 2008, when Barack Obama became the first mixed-race president in history (a campaign that received monumental media coverage), a relatively modest 56.8 percent of eligible Americans voted. However, it should be noted that turnout in presidential elections has been gradually rising since the 1996 nadir.

The turnout during mid-term elections is even more dismal, generally ranging between 47 percent and 36 percent over the past half-century. Even during the contentious elections of November 2010 (when Republicans gained seats as a protest against the policies of President Barack Obama), a scant 37.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots (almost two-thirds ignored the duty entirely).

Voter participation in the U.S. remains consistently below corresponding levels in most other western democracies. In countries like Italy, Belgium, Austria and Australia, more than 90 percent of the voting public cast ballots at election time.

International Business Times spoke to an expert about U.S. voter apathy.

Jamie Chandler is a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City.

IB TIMES: What would you attribute this voter ‘apathy’ in the U.S. to?

CHANDLER: U.S. voter turnout lags other western democracies by about 10 to 15 percent. This has to do with many factors, including the American system of representation, the wide socioeconomic and demographic variation in the public, and the way political parties and candidates engage voters. Apathy plays a role, but it is much smaller than socio-economics. Apathy, or people not caring about politics, has a lot to do whether or not people believe their voice matters. This number tends to vary depending on the type of election. During competitive elections, where both candidates have a good chance of winning, apathy is lower, but is higher during elections when the incumbent is likely going be re-elected. Apathy was much lower in 2008 because it was such a compelling race. There is also a small segment of voters ( about 10 to 15 percent) who feel politically alienated. They consciously abstain from voting as a form of protest. Western democracies have different representation systems. Although the number of Congressional seats are distributed proportionally, representation in the US system is “winner-take-all,” that is, whoever gets the most votes wins the seat. European Proportional representation systems reward political parties with a share of seats, if they achieve some threshold of the vote, say 20 percent.

IB TIMES: Voter turnout was actually higher in the 1960s (consistently in the 60-plus percent level). Why has it decreased since then? Might it be because Democrats and Republicans have become too much alike, thereby not giving voters a clear-cut choice?

CHANDLER: Between the late 1960s and 1996 (the nadir), a number of political events lowered the turnout. First, voter confidence and trust in government took a major hit after the election of 1968, brought on by the low support for the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, while widespread fatigue with the social changes of the 1960s led many voters to choose not to participate in protest. Throughout the 1970s, this diminished trust in government was exacerbated by a severe recession, which brought about the bankruptcy of many major metropolitan areas and a big increase in crime. Another factor was that both mainstream political parties decreased voter mobilization strategies, combined with the rejection of the two-party system by many voters. Although this isn’t the case today, by the 1980s, many political scientists put the parties on a ‘deathwatch.’ Also, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which imposed restrictions on campaign donations, meant the parties had less money to spend on broad ‘get-out-the-vote’ efforts. This trend ended however, in the early 2000s, when changes in campaign finance regulation allowed the parties and interest groups to generate more funds onto these efforts.

IB TIMES: On the other hand, could voter apathy be a good thing – in the sense that people who are happy with their lot in life don’t care who the president is? CHANDLER: No, apathy is not a good thing. There have been broad declines in not only voting, but also other forms of political participation (protests, and grassroots efforts.) When 50 percent of the population stays home on election day, we get a system of unequal representation. That is, politicians generate benefits for those who vote, and mostly ignore those who don’t. However, this makes strategic sense because campaigns have limited resources. Candidates spend money on “sure-thing voters” because they’ll get maximum return at the polls. The last few elections are good examples of this, as the Republicans spent a lot of time on attracting social conservative and Tea Party voters, who have a high interest in the election, than say Asian, Hispanic, and other populations who have lower turnout rates.

IB TIMES: Who are the least likely to vote in presidential elections? Who is most likely to vote?

CHANDLER: People with higher incomes and education levels are much more likely to vote. They have the advantage of being more informed about politics and are also more sensitive to political conditions because of their careers, family, and property ownership. At the same time, all things are not equal. Historically, Whites have tended to turn out at higher rates than Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians (although the 2008 election saw about the same turnout for Whites (66 percent) as Blacks (64 percent). And there is a lot of variation across age groups. People in their prime earning years between the ages of 45-and-65 vote more than those who are older and younger. One of the interesting things about media coverage in every presidential election cycle is that analysts oftentimes predict that the youth vote (18-25 year olds) will be a ‘game-changer’ come election day. However, when that day comes, only about 17 (??) percent of youths end up voting -- about the same for as the prior presidential election.

IB TIMES: Why are elections always held on a Tuesday, a work-day? Doesn’t this also reduce the number of people who can go out and vote?

CHANDLER: In 1845, Congress determined that Presidential and Congressional elections would be held on the first Tuesday in November. The decision was driven by the fact that the country was an agricultural society. The fall harvest was over in November and Tuesday gave most of the country enough time to travel to the polls. Back then, towns were separated by great distance. Tuesday was reasonable because voters could leave their homes after Sunday church services and have enough time to get to the polls by Tuesday. Modern voters oftentimes complain that they don’t vote because they don’t have enough time to get to the polls, but even in the face of two-day travel, 19th century voter turnout averaged 80 percent. Voting on Tuesdays has affected voter turnout, but recent changes to electoral systems around the country through the Help America Vote Act of 2002, have introduced early voting. In Florida, for example, polls are open for about two weeks, giving voters an opportunity to go vote on the weekends.

IB TIMES: Does voter apathy actually help certain political parties? That is, for example, if large numbers of poor people or black people are expected not to vote, might that benefit the Republicans? CHANDLER: Lower turnout amongst many poorer citizens and some demographic groups has helped Republicans. U.S. population dynamics give the Democrats a numerical edge, but these populations generally don’t like to participate in elections. The Republican Party has a much easier time mobilizing its core constituents who vote regularly (e.g. social conservatives, Evangelicals, Tea Party members, etc.).

IB TIMES: Voter turnout is even lower during mid-term elections. Is this because few people are engaged in the political process and ignore an election that isn’t for the highest office? CHANDLER: Indeed, there is a cyclical nature of elections. Mid-term elections witness fewer voters because those who do vote in these elections tend to be more interested in politics and are much more partisan than voters who vote in presidential elections. Media coverage also contributes to a higher vote in presidential elections. Independent or occasional voters tend to get activated during these years, because of the volume of press coverage that presidential elections receive. A real problem exists for state and local elections. These races see only about 10 to 15 percent turnout -- which is strange because local and state officials have much more influence over the daily lives of the public compared to presidents.

IBTIMES: What kind of turnout do you expect for the 2012 election? CHANDLER: 2012 turnout will probably be higher than 2008. Recent legal changes to campaign finance laws means that more money will go into the system for political advertising and ‘get-out-the-vote’ efforts. This 2012 is also a “high-stimulus” election because of the economy and the anti-incumbent sentiment. Much of the public is very enthusiastic about voting next year, particularly Republicans.

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