On paper, American citizens have won more rights to be included in many areas of political life. Overtly sexist and racist barriers that excluded millions have been demolished. Americans are now more educated and more informed about national affairs than there ancestors were a hundred years ago. Yet the odd fact is that despite all this, Americans no longer get involved as much or as extensively as they did in the past. With few exceptions, voter participation has been decreasing significantly since 1960. Not only are American voter turnout levels low but they have been steadily declining over the past four decades.
From a high of around 63% of the voting- age population in 1960, turnout in presidential elections has declined to just barely half (51%) of the voting age population by 2000. Voting in the USA is essentially a two-step process; first one must register then one votes. It hardly seems likely that those lacking the motivation to vote would stop at the first step in the process and simply fail to register. By this logic it would be surprising to see falling turnout without falling registration.
Registration rates have been falling since the 1960's but turnout rates of those registered to vote have also being falling over this same period of time. America is unique in the fact that registration to vote is left to the individual, in most European countries registration is done automatically for you. However, in 1993 Congress passed a law designed to make registration easier and the measure has increased voter registration throughout the country but participation in the electoral process is still in decline. In other words, although all the evidence points to the fact that the burden of registering to vote falls on the individual and it is this that leads to a low turnout I don't feel that this is the true reason. Not only have people become less inclined to register, they have become less inclined to vote once they are registered. It is true to say then that Americans for whatever reasons are defecting in increasing numbers from the voting process at both steps of the two step process.
There must be explanations as to why this has happened and I intend to discover the many factors that have contributed to this decline. In most European nations the voter gets to make one choice once every four or five years, they vote for against a Member of Parliament who then represents their views at national level. When there is only one election for one office every several years that election is bound to assume interest and importance to a voter. In contrast, Americans elect far more public officials than any other nation in the world. It has been estimated that there about 526,000 elective offices in the United States and that almost every week of the year there is an election going on somewhere in the country. This has a profound effect on the sustained interest in elections because when individuals are constantly requested to vote they can easily lose interest in the process.
Although in theory this is the true essence of democracy at its best, in practice it can have the opposite effect. A citizen of Massachusetts, for example, votes not only for the U.S. president but also for two senators, the state governor, the member of the House of Representatives for his or her district, a state representative, a state senator, the state attorney general, the state treasurer, the secretary of state, a county commissioner, a sheriff, and clerks of various courts, as well as (in the cities) for the mayor, the city councillor, and school committee members and (in towns) for selectmen, town-meeting members, a town moderator, library trustees, health board members, assessors, water commissioners, the town clerk, housing authority members, the tree warden, and the commissioner of the public burial ground. (American Government 7th Edition, pg. 156) As the above example demonstrates Americans are involved in a much more 'hands on' type of democracy than us in the UK, the fact that there are so many elected public offices can make participation in the whole political process boring if you just want to vote for a particular party. However, taking a critical view on the idea that the sheer amount of elections could allow for an individual to become bored with the whole process undermines the fact that the presidential elections are only every four years. What I mean by this is that if voting is not compulsory, then an individual need not vote at each local election but just participate in the presidential elections that take place every four years. This is the case in many European countries where voter participation is much higher than that in the United States.
This fact therefore does not explain the low turnout in American elections; it does act as a contributing factor towards the low participation so it is necessary to look towards other possibilities. The mass communications media play a crucial role in the democratic political system of the United States. Since the 1960's the media have filled the vacuum left by the steady erosion of the mediating institutions that once bridged the gap between the understandings and desires of mass publics and the actions of government. Nowadays most people get their political information and images from the mass media, particularly television rather than through mediation by other people. The medium of television has revolutionise d the political system in the United States, According to Graber, 'Media coverage is the very lifeblood of politics because it shapes the perceptions that form the reality on which political action is based. Media do more than depict the political environment, they are the political environment'.
(Politics USA, pg. 217) What this means is that voters gain most of their political knowledge from television, surveys of Americans' television viewing public consistently showed that most people said that television was their main source of information about world events. However, most Americans watch television as a leisure activity and seek entertainment, not political enlightenment from their television sets. This has led to a diet if trivialized, simplified items which do little or nothing to develop an informed public as such constraints raise considerable problems for the television coverage of complex issues which lie at the heart of American politics. Television takes complex issues such as foreign affairs and economic issues and distorts them by simplifying them in such a way. What this implies is that the public cant have a full understanding of what is going on if it is simplified in such a manner and therefore may not see things of such importance that they would need to go and vote to protest against such issues. American television has also undergone a transformation throughout the 1990's, it has moved from an era of broadcasting to narrowcasting meaning that now through the medium of cable TV that viewers can watch a specific type of programme such as MTV that would never be interrupted by the news.
This means that now more and more people are watching less and less political or news programmes for example, the political programme 'News Hour' only attracted 1% of the nations viewers whilst MTV and other channels enjoyed much higher viewing figures. The new culture of narrow casting breeds new problems within the American system because whilst through television people gain their political knowledge they now have the choice of not watching news at all which was the case throughout the period of broadcasting. The ever growing youth (due to the baby boom of the 1960's and 1970's) have become accustomed to a culture of non association with political programmes and the news as they have the choice to switch channels and be entertained. This culture of narrowcasting may be a factor as to why there has been a decline in voter participation because the public can disassociate themselves from the news and have no understanding of what is taking place in the political world. This would also explain the decrease in participation since the 1960's as then individuals were more exposed to news and political programmes and had no choice to turn over, as there was no such thing as cable television.
Another part of the media that raises problems in the American system is that there are no national newspapers. Most newspapers are local monopolies and offer limited coverage of national issues, in terms of political involvement the most dramatic change in the extent that Americans follow election campaigns in newspapers. The proportion reading about a campaign dropped from 55% in 1960 to 18% in 1996 and the proportion of those reading nothing at all increased from 20% to over 51% (Perspectives on American Gov.) Another factor that could contribute to low voter participation within the American system is that since the 1960's the political parties have become more merged and similar, this has led to the general public campaigning for single issues that they believe in as they feel there is no great difference between the two major parties. Since the 1960's there has been an explosion of interest groups in America, campaigning for political issues such as civil rights, equality and lifestyle issues.
The exceptional growth of interest groups not suprisingly appeared to eclipse the representative functions of political parties as more and more people engaged their interests in interest groups rather than the main parties. This in theory proves to be another explanation that adds to the decline voting population as it proves that people have become dissatisfied with the major parties and have moved away from the more conventional forms of participation through the party. However, what this theory fails to uncover is that this shows that people are still participating and showing an interest in politics but are just not voting. Statistics prove that non-voters are more likely than voters to be poor, black or Hispanic and uneducated. It has been proved that the more education one has the more likely one is to vote as they are more exposed to political information and that the higher socio-economic status one has makes it more likely that individuals will find elections more meaningful and will be motivated to vote. Whereas lower socio-economic status makes it less likely as the individual feels they have less to gain and nothing to lose from the government.
Non-voters are less interested in political issues, don't follow campaigns all that closely and are less likely to believe that participation will make a difference, all in all this means that the non-voters feel that if they did vote that it would have an impact. Because of their lack of formal education, non-voters can't figure out modern politics, often get contradictory pieces of information and sometimes can't figure out how to register or where to vote. This therefore is a culmination of all the factors discussed above but also we must take into consideration the fact that language plays a large part in American culture. Unlike Britain, where about 98% of the population speak English this is not the case in the United States. Latinos are the fastest growing segment of society in the United States but the language barrier makes it increasingly difficult for many Latinos to get in tough with a public official, serve on local governing boards, and engage in other forms of political participation such as voting when the command of English is an asset.
A final factor that also has an effect on the declining participation of voters within the United States is the lack of social connectedness. There has been a general decline in our willingness to join in community activities. Compared to our parents' generation we are less likely to know our neighbours, to belong to trade unions and professional associations or to simply spend time chatting to acquaintances. As a nation people have become far more individual and as people become more satisfied with their private life they are said to have fewer reasons to get involved in politics. It has been said that community and general social ties provide a substantial proportion of individuals motivation to vote. Where these ties no longer exist elections and voting no longer have an enhanced sense of meaningfulness.
In conclusion the decline in voter turnout over the past four decades has been substantial and serious and is no way just an artefact of available data. Nor is the decline just simply a matter of fewer people negotiating the onerous U.S. registration system, because even those registered are showing less of a propensity to vote. Decreased voting does not seem to be a matter of increased voting costs, because the registration system, the chief source of cost to the voters has actually become less stringent since 1960. The root cause of declining turnout I feel, has been a reduction in the perceived social benefits of voting.
Also a substantial decline in social connectedness as manifested in a younger, less married, and less church going electorate and a generalised withdrawal or disconnection from the political world with a declining belief in government responsiveness.