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Why Americans don't vote -- and how that might change

WritLegal commentary from FindLaw's Writ
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In this story:

Why potential voters don't vote

The search for solutions

The consequences of voter apathy


(FindLaw) -- Despite the close vote in the presidential election Tuesday, it appears that only about half the potential voters -- 51 percent -- exercised their right to vote. That figure is only marginally better than it was four years ago. According to official Census Bureau and Federal Election Commission figures, only 49 percent of those of voting age participated in the last presidential election in 1996. This follows the trend of a steady decline in voting during the 20th Century, which began with a 75 percent turnout in the 1902 presidential election.

American voting habits are particularly striking when compared with those of other democratic nations, like Japan and Germany, where 89 percent of the potential voters go to the polls. In fact, most democracies have about 80 percent voter participation. Of the 153 democracies in the world, the United States ranks near the bottom for voter involvement.

When 100 million people fail to vote in a presidential election, as they did in 1996, and as they did again Tuesday, the reason is more than simply apathy. To tag half the voting age population with indifference, unconcern, passivity, lethargy or simply laziness may describe behavior, but it doesn't explain it. And an explanation is needed, if one can be given for 100 million excuses.

Why potential voters don't vote

For years, I've tried to understand why people don't vote. The problem first surfaced on my radar in 1971, when I was working at the White House. Newly enfranchised 18-20 year old voters would be eligible to vote for the first time in the 1972 election under the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. The question was: Would they? And in what numbers? I was asked for my thoughts.

After examining voting data for the periods following the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870 (giving slaves and people of color the right to vote) and the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (giving women the right to vote), I realized that receiving the right to vote did not mean people would, in fact, vote.

To understand this complex issue, at one point I turned to Alexis de Tocqueville's classic study of the American character, "Democracy In America" (the 1966 Lawrence translation). Tocqueville didn't do anything for my predictive skills, but he did provide insight and understanding.

A few days ago, I again pulled from the shelf that worn edition of Tocqueville. The young Frenchman's observations of political participation were made in 1830 following the 1828 election of President Andrew Jackson, who did more to encourage political participation than any of his predecessors. Still, more than 150 years later, Tocqueville's examination of human nature in a democratic context remains revealing.

Alexis de Tocqueville decided that self interest would "become the chief if not the only driving force behind all behavior" of the American character, observing that:

"[i]t is difficult to force a man out of himself and get him to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state, for he has little understanding of the way in which the fate of the state can influence his own lot. But if it is a question of taking a road past his property, he sees at once that this small public matter has a bearing on his greatest private interests, and there is no need to point out to him the close connection between his private profit and the general interest."

During the Republican convention in Philadelphia, when a reporter asked a 27-year-old construction worker why he was not interested in presidential politics, the man explained, "It doesn't seem to make much difference, does it?"

In this answer, reflective of the feelings of many nonvoters, can be heard echoes of Tocqueville's self- interest analysis -- albeit here expressing disinterest, since no road was passing his property.

Can self-interest explain why 100 million voters don't show up at the polls? Generally, yes. Although the concept of "self-interest" lumps together such basic and specific voter aversions as cynicism, distrust of politicians, disgust with mud slinging, and a multitude of other turnoffs, while failing to separate out voters who don't vote because they are happy with the way things are. Clearly, the particular reasons for not voting are many and often compound.

The search for solutions

The closeness of the November 7 presidential race should have drawn not only the faithful, but also their friends, family, and fellow sympathizers to the polls. However, high voter turnout did not materialize.

To call attention to this disquieting situation and to look for solutions, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government has launched the Vanishing Voter Project. The project's goal is broadening and deepening citizens' involvement in the presidential selection process.

But as the project's polls show, not only are voters not interested in elections, but they are ill informed about the candidates and their issues. The project's data documents the seriousness of the problem.

There are no simple solutions. But one cause, not tied to pure self-interest, may be the difficulty in registering to vote, notwithstanding recent improvements like "motor voter" laws, and mail, fax, and Internet registration laws.

Because of my interest, I was delighted to discover an extremely perceptive study of these laws by a lawyer, Jason P.W. Halperin, in New York University's Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. The article entitled "A Winner at the Polls: A Proposal for Mandatory Voter Registration," analyzes plummeting voter turnout, broadly comparing the 19th and 20th Centuries; surveys several proposals that address the problem; shows the negative impact of 20th Century registration laws on voting participation; and makes a compelling case for mandatory (and simplified) registration for federal elections.

The key to the study is the evidence that high percentages of registered voters, in fact, vote. Halperin persuasively argues that if America were to make registration the government's responsibility, as other democracies do, it would revitalize the American electorate.

The consequences of voter apathy

Though the closeness of this election at least halted the downward drift in voter turnout, there are still too few voters participating. With only about half the potential voters participating, it indicates that our election system is seriously flawed.

"The right to vote freely for the candidate of one's choice is the essence of a democratic society," Chief Justice Earl Warren noted in Reynolds v. Sims. Editorial writers, like those of Ohio's Columbus Post Dispatch, should not have to remind voters of the stakes. "Political Inaction -- Voter Apathy is Dangerous to Democracy," the Post Dispatch's headline exhorted.

And the newspaper concluded its editorial with a dire admonition from Robert Hutchins, the former dean of Yale Law School and later president of the University of Chicago, who warned: "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment."

The words of the no-nonsense former U.S. Senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, sum up the vanishing voter situation perfectly: "Freedom unexercised may become freedom forfeited."


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