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.