Mature U.S. Democracy Hobbled By Disinterested Voters

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Government of the people, by the people, will be missing a lot of people Election Day.

It's a persistent riddle in a country that thinks of itself as the beacon of democracy. Why do so few share the light?

Compare U.S. voting with foreign voting and it's not a pretty sight. Americans are less apt to vote than are people in other old democracies, in new ones, in dangerous places, dirt poor ones, freezing cold ones, stinking hot ones and highly dysfunctional ones.

Even that the chaotic Iraq, where an estimated 70 percent of voters cast ballots in December parliamentary elections, has a leg up on the U.S.

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The pitched battle for control of the House and Senate in Tuesday's election has raised hope that voting will rise above its usual anemic levels. But competitive races are not reliable predictors of turnout and doubts exist about whether Republicans will be as fired up as Democrats and whether independents will vote with their feet or their seat.

As in other aspects of American life, the people who run elections work to make things easier for everyone. Yet they achieve little more than blips in increased turnout, if that.

Participation, paradoxically, is highest in states where making it to a polling station can be misery on a wintry day. Minnesota, Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming are among states that lead the nation in getting voters out, and they put the Sunbelt to shame.

About 40 percent of U.S. citizens of voting age population cast ballots in nonpresidential year elections.

Despite the competitive nature of the 2000 presidential race and the certainty of having a new chief executive no matter who won, just more than half turned out. In 2004, a polarized year when everyone remembered the near dead heat four years earlier, turnout climbed over 60 percent — edging a little closer to the likes of Iran, Iceland and Somalia.

Some of the best states for voter turnout have conveniences such as same-day registration. But it is their culture of civic engagement that is most credited for their relative success. The expansion of absentee voting in many states has yet to produce a clear spike in overall participation.

Curtis Gans, who has been studying the riddle for three decades, says making voting easier does little to make people vote. "We know that it isn't procedure because we've constantly made procedure easier and voter turnout has gone down," he said.

Nor is it demographics.

The population today is more educated, older and less mobile than in the past — all things that should steer people to the voting booth. But that does not happen.

Gans' diagnosis: lack of motivation.

Blame the politicians, in part:

—the attack campaigning casting the choice as one between bad and worse;

—the lack of clearly defined choices on issues;

—the string of deviousness or wrong turns over the years — "I am not a crook," "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," "Saddam Hussein ... continues to develop weapons of mass destruction."

And blame people and their culture, too.

"We've had the fragmenting and atomization of our society," Gans said, driven by the 500-channel TV culture, the interstate, strip malls, abandonment of farms and the rise of the Internet. "All of those things have undermined community."

Gans is director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

A recent AP-Pew poll looked at the 45 percent of the population that can be characterized as nonvoters because these people rarely vote even though most are registered.

Most broadly, the poll found that nonvoters are not just disconnected from politics, but also from their communities. Nonvoters were less likely to trust others, to have a strong support network of friends and family or to know their neighbors than regular voters were.

Among those who were unregistered, only 14 percent said it was complicated to register where they live. Most had not done so because they lacked the time, had not gotten around to it, had no confidence in politicians or just did not care.

The United States lags about 130 countries in voter participation. Discount ones that enforce compulsory voting laws — fewer than a dozen — and America's standing hardly improves.

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