REGARDLESS of who wins in next month's midterm elections, a sure bet is that less than half of the voting-age population will actually participate. The percentage of the electorate casting ballots for the House of Representatives has fluctuated between 33 and 45 percent over the past sixteen midterm elections. Recent turnout rates suggest that the percentage in 1998 will probably be near the bottom of this range, and quite possibly even lower. In 1996 the presidential-election turnout fell below 50 percent for the first time since the early 1920s -- when women had just received the franchise and had not yet begun to use it as frequently as men. Last year not a single one of the eleven states that called their citizens to the polls managed to get a majority to vote. The best turnout occurred in Oregon, where a heated campaign debate had taken place on the question of whether to repeal the state's "right to die" law. The worst turnout last year was a shockingly low five percent, for a special election in Texas. This occurred even though Governor George W. Bush stumped the state for a week, urging people to participate and promising that a "yes" vote would result in a major tax cut.
Universal suffrage means that everyone should have an equal opportunity to vote, regardless of social background. But over the past three decades studies have found increasing biases in turnout. In particular, people without college degrees have become less likely to go to the polls. Statistics from the Census Bureau on turnout by educational achievement make the point. Respondents were asked if they had taken part in the most recent national election.
Since 1966 turnout rates have declined most sharply among people at the lower levels of education. In 1994 people with no college education made up 53 percent of the adult population but only 42 percent of the voters.
Turnout is now also greatly related to experience in life. Turnout rates have always been lowest among young people; perhaps this is why there was relatively little opposition in the early 1970s to lowering the voting age to eighteen. But not even the most pessimistic analysts could have foreseen the record-low participation rates of Generation X, as shown in the following census findings on age and turnout:
The low turnout among young voters today is paradoxical given that they are one of the best-educated generations in American history. Even those who have made it to college are expressing remarkably little concern for politics. Chelsea Clinton's class of 2001 recently set a new record for political apathy among college freshmen: only 27 percent said that keeping up with politics was an important priority for them, as opposed to 58 percent of the class of 1970, with whom Bill and Hillary Clinton attended college.
Of course, Chelsea's classmates have not seen government encroach on their lives as it did on the lives of their parents -- through the Vietnam War and the draft. Nor has any policy affected them as directly as Medicare has affected their grandparents. It is noteworthy that senior citizens are actually voting at higher rates today than when Medicare was first starting up. Political scientists used to write that the frailties of old age led to a decline in turnout after age sixty; now such a decline occurs only after eighty. The greater access of today's seniors to medical care must surely be given some credit for this change. Who says that politics doesn't make a difference?
Yet it is difficult to persuade people who have channel surfed all their lives that politics really does matter. Chelsea's generation is the first in the age of television to grow up with narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. When CBS, NBC, and ABC dominated the airwaves, their blanket coverage of presidential speeches, political conventions, and presidential debates sometimes left little else to watch on TV. But as channels have proliferated, it has become much easier to avoid exposure to politics altogether. Whereas President Richard Nixon got an average rating of 50 for his televised addresses to the nation, President Clinton averaged only about 30 in his first term. Political conventions, which once received more TV coverage than the Summer Olympics, have been relegated to an hour per night and draw abysmal ratings. In sum, young people today have never known a time when most citizens paid attention to major political events. As a result, most of them have yet to get into the habit of voting.
The revolutionary expansion of channels and Web sites anticipated in the near future is likely to worsen this state of affairs, especially for today's youth. Political junkies will certainly find more political information available than ever before, but with so many outlets for so many specific interests, it will also be extraordinarily easy to avoid public-affairs news altogether. The result could well be further inequality of political information, with avid followers of politics becoming ever more knowledgeable while the rest of the public slips deeper into political apathy. This year's expected low turnout may not be the bottom of the barrel.
SOME commentators welcome, rather than fear, the decline in turnout rates in America. If people do not vote, they say, citizens must be satisfied with the government. There is a certain logic to this view, because if nonvoters were extremely disgruntled with our leaders, they would undoubtedly take some political action. However, to argue that nonvoters are content with government just because they aren't actively opposing it stretches the logic too far. When the 1996 National Election Study asked people to rate their satisfaction with how democracy works in the United States, nonvoters were less positive than voters. Furthermore, young people were more than twice as likely as senior citizens to be dissatisfied with American democracy.
Why should young adults be satisfied with government, given how few benefits they receive from it in comparison with their grandparents? But until they start showing up in greater numbers at the polls, there will be little incentive for politicians to focus on programs that will help the young. Why should politicians worry about nonvoters any more than the makers of denture cream worry about people with healthy teeth? It is probably more than coincidental that Clinton's two most visible policy failures -- the 1993 economic-stimulus package and the 1994 effort to establish universal health care -- had their strongest backing from people who were not even registered to vote. Congressional Republicans may rationally have anticipated that many of these proposals' supporters were unlikely to be judging them in the 1994 elections.
After the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, I saw a bumper sticker that read NEWT HAPPENS WHEN ONLY 37 PERCENT OF AMERICANS VOTE. Although I don't usually let bumper stickers determine my research agenda, this one piqued my interest. Would the Republicans have won the majority of House seats if turnout had been greater? A simple way to address this question is to assess how much difference it would have made if voters had mirrored the adult population in terms of education. According to the 1994 National Election Study, 30 percent of voters who lacked a high school diploma and 62 percent of voters with college degrees voted for Republican candidates for the House. Increasing turnout among the least educated citizens would thus have made some difference. If turnout rates had been equal in all education categories, the Republican share of the vote would have fallen from 52.0 to 49.2 percent.