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October 30, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Public libraries. Elementary schools. Churches. Fire Stations. These community staples become polling places on Election Day, opening early and closing late so hordes of registered voters can cast ballots and have a hand in the democratic process. Work. School. Illness. Disinterest. According to a 2004 U.S. Census Bureau survey, these are the main reasons millions of potential voters shy away from said polling stations and give up their democratic right to vote.
NOT VOTING — A LIFESTYLE CHOICE?
Ross Peterson, 43, sat out the last presidential election. “If I had to guess, it was a combination of too busy and too ill-informed,” says the Columbia real estate appraiser on why he didn’t cast a ballot in November 2004.
In that election, 64 percent of U.S. voting-age citizens voted according to data released by the Census Bureau. Of the 142 million U.S. citizens who registered to vote in the election, 89 percent turned up at the polls. On the other hand, 55 million citizens didn’t register to vote, and 71 million didn’t show up on Election Day.
Missouri had the 11th highest rate of voter turnout in the nation in the 2004 presidential election with 68.5 percent of voting age citizens taking part. However, that still means 31.5 percent — almost a third — of eligible Missourians steered clear of the polls, and George W. Bush and John Kerry, that November.
“If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the same rhetoric that you’ve been hearing for the past 14 elections,” says Kenneth Young, 50, a painter in Sturgeon who hasn’t voted since 1976. “When they tell me I can vote on whether Congress gets a pay raise, that’s when I’ll vote.”
Being busy or having a conflicting work or school schedule was the No. 1 reason registered voters gave the Census for not voting in 2004. Other top deterrents to voting were illness or family emergency, lack of interest in the election and unfavorable views of the candidates.
Statistics have shown that younger voters are less likely to vote than older ones, fewer men than women cast ballots, and citizens’ likelihood of voting increases with their income and education level, according to 2004 Census data.
YOUTH AND VOTING: APATHY AND DISCONTENT
In 2004, less than half of the citizens in the 18–24 age bracket cast ballots, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This was the most politically apathetic age group of that election; 68.7 percent of citizens age 45–54 voted, and a whopping 73.3 percent of those age 65–74 years old showed up at the polls.
John Petrocik, chair of MU’s political science department, says that lack of awareness of greater society and naiveté are two of the main reasons that the young vote in smaller numbers than the general population. “Learning to care about the society at large is a habit that you acquire with life experience, and young people don’t have those experiences.” Petrocik says the average voter is 45 years old and has been voting and following elections and current events for 20-plus years, standing in sharp contrast to the 18- to 25-year-old bracket.
“Young people are concerned with themselves,” he says. “They have a myriad of things that require their attention.” Typical issues that citizens consider when voting, such as the national deficit, are often far removed from the day-to-day existence of the young, according to Petrocik.
Young voters also tend to be more mobile than other age groups. James Endersby, associate professor of political science at MU, thinks young people tend to vote less because they often lack concrete ties to their communities. “You come from wherever your family’s from, and your college is in a different town or a different state,” he says. “Once you’re older, once you have a home, you produce ties to a particular place, and you develop a natural interest in the political system because you see how it affects you.”
There are also many cases in which young people don’t vote for the same reasons as anyone else. Dissatisfaction with the candidates is a major reason why Grant Blackwell, a 24-year-old Columbia artist, has never voted in an election. “There’s not going to be a candidate who stops the war,” he says. “Barack Obama — he’s not going to stop the war.”
Blackwell believes that not voting is a way to express dissatisfaction, and that there are too many similarities between the available, undesirable options. “All the candidates are cousins,” he says.
Originally, Cambelle Logan, an 18-year-old Columbia resident, wasn’t planning to vote. Now, she says she’ll probably give her vote to her father, an Obama supporter. “I trust his judgment,” she says. “He’s got a lot of knowledge that I don’t have.”
It’s possible that Logan’s father is surreptitiously using whatever means he can to get her in the habit of voting. According to Endersby, voting is very habitual. He says one political scholar suggested that if you vote three times, you’ll vote forever. Logan might vote in three elections for her father while developing the habit of voting for herself.
Logan believes Obama and McCain are both better than George W. Bush, but that neither is going to do what she thinks needs to be done. She says the environment is the issue most important to her, but she doesn’t think they will advocate necessary reform. “Withholding a vote is also a form of getting your voice out,” Logan says.
Paul Bellinger, 25, a political science doctoral candidate at MU, agrees with Logan about voicing discontent by refusing to vote. “I feel that major changes to the political process are much more likely to come about as voter turnout drops below the 50 percent mark,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Bellinger has decided not to vote in this year’s election because of his dissatisfaction with the electoral process. “The political process is not a democratic process in this country,” he says. “Even if there were a candidate that I liked, I would basically be endorsing this unfair system.” The Electoral College, U.S. residents barred from voting (such as prisoners, felons and resident aliens) and the exclusion of third parties are among the examples of system failures, Bellinger says.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the common remark made to nonvoters that goes something like, ‘if you don’t vote, you can’t complain,’” Bellinger says. “This common remark is exactly backward.” He says it is those who do vote who can’t complain about what happens after an election because they were the ones campaigning for and endorsing the political process — the very process that might produce outcomes they don’t agree with later.
But many nonvoters aren’t thinking about the political process and its viability when they choose to stay home. Marjorie McDonald, 22, didn’t vote in the last election and doesn’t plan on voting this time either. “I don’t vote because I do not stay informed on the issues, and I don’t think you should vote unless you know what the candidates are about and what the issues are,” she says.
Some of Columbia’s voters feel incensed by the idea of political apathy. Others feel compassion for non-voters.
These days, there’s no excuse for being uninformed, says Patrick Dougherty, 24, a Columbia resident. “We live in an information age,” he says. “You can just Google something and find it instantly. Before radios, before television, before the Internet and cell phones, people voted.”
Shannan Baker, a Columbia resident, agrees. She says that it is a citizen’s responsibility to know the issues and the candidates. “That’s our job. If you don’t want to be the leader, then you have to help choose who should represent you.”
Like many voters, Sara Williams-Brown, 23, feels voting is essential and that it’s important for everyone to cast a ballot.
On the other hand, she sympathizes with nonvoters to a point. “There are a lot of issues that people, educated or not, don’t fully understand,” she says. “They should just try to vote on what’s relevant to them.”
THE GENERAL POPULATION AND VOTING: MORE APATHY AND DISCONTENT
Youth aside, many older members of the general population also choose not to cast ballots, often for the same reasons that the young don’t vote. “I live in a free country, but I only have two choices,” Young says. Ron Paul was Young’s first choice for this election, and he says with a five-party system he would have had more of a chance.
Ross Peterson, 43, has voted in some elections but abstained from others. “I just wasn’t interested in either of the candidates and hadn’t been paying close enough attention to either of their positions and therefore felt it would be an uninformed vote,” he says about the 1996 election.
The dishonesty of candidates keeps Donna Lampe, 58, away from the polls. She, like Young, hasn’t voted for the president since 1976. “Usually I don’t vote because they lie,” she says.
Many have made serious efforts to get more people to the polls with only moderate success. Organizations such as Rock the Vote and Declare Yourself have advocated voting to young people, using celebrities to attract attention to their cause. In Rock the Vote’s 18-year history, youth voting rates for presidential elections have not changed substantially. According to Census data, they were around 40 percent when Rock the Vote was founded in 1990 (of all 18–25 year old residents, including noncitizens) before taking a nose dive into the low 30s in 1996 and 2000 before resurfacing at 41.9 percent in 2004.
Campaign volunteers, for obvious reasons, encourage all demographics to vote. Even the U.S. government has gotten into the mix. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, which required states to allow residents to register to vote at the same time they apply for or renew a driver’s license and to register to vote by mail. Again, Census data shows negligible differences in voter turnout from 1980 to 2004.
When surveyed by the U.S. Census in 2004, 17 percent of unregistered voters said they hadn’t registered because they failed to meet the deadline. The cutoff date for registering in most states comes almost a full month before the election date. However, there are six U.S. states that allow voters to register on the day of the election. Of those six, four place in the top five in voter turnout: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine and New Hampshire (Oregon, which doesn’t allow Election Day registration, comes in third). Additionally, Census data reveals that North Dakota, which has no voter registration process, has the sixth highest rate of voter turnout in the country.
This suggests that increased flexibility with registration timelines could help to improve voter turnout, but Endersby says it’s not that simple. For starters, the states with same-day registration and high voter turnout all happen to be Northern, making it unclear whether same-day registration or regional culture is responsible for increased rates of voting. He also says not having a voter registration process only works in North Dakota because the state is so sparsely populated. “There’s not likely to be rampant corruption. Everybody knows everybody.”
In bigger cities and more densely populated states, corruption becomes a major concern and renders voter registration necessary, Endersby says. “In urban areas it becomes easier to register people who don’t exist,” he says. “There is an incentive for some parties to cheat, so therefore you have to be cautious about the process.”
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Changing the registration process is just one path among many to lead more citizens to the polls.
Personal interaction is a great motivator, Endersby says. Knocking on doors and personally urging residents to vote, which are typically the jobs of campaign workers, seem to be the most effective method of mobilizing the public. “People tend to respond more to face-to-face contact,” he says.
McDonald thinks that if political rhetoric were put in layperson’s terms, people would be able to inform themselves more easily; by understanding the candidates and the issues, they might be more inclined to vote. “The candidates could simplify their issues for the average person,” she says. “I think it would be more believable if it came from the candidates themselves.”
Peterson agrees. “What I like to see are newspapers that have two columns for candidates side by side, showing what each of their positions are,” he says.
Endersby also thinks that the American political system is rather complicated for the novice voter to navigate. He says that when compared to other countries, political parties in the U.S. are not as static, and candidates often take positions on issues against those of their party.
“We make it hard on our citizens because they have to learn so much to cast an informed vote,” he says. “Philosophically, I’d like those people who don’t know enough about politics to know more, but we’re asking an awful lot of those people.”
On the other hand, with an ongoing, expensive war, financial meltdown on Wall Street and a highly unpopular administration, many have been prompted to educate — and register — themselves to vote in 2008’s presidential election.
Columbia resident Nick Kenny hasn’t voted in the last two presidential elections, but plans to vote this year. “I felt it was my duty to be informed this time around because of the state of our economy,” he says. Census data shows that voter turnout is higher in important elections. During the Vietnam War era, turnout was a good 10 percent higher than it has been for the past several elections. As turnout rates in most states were high during this year’s primaries, it’s safe to say that 2008 should see more people voting, and fewer people who forgot to register, this November.