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Businessweek Archives

Why Voter Apathy Will Make A Strong Showing

Washington Outlook


When turnout on Election Day 1992 jumped, reversing a 30-year slide in voter participation, it looked as though the political system was finally conquering that quadrennial foe: public apathy. But now, '92 looks like a blip, with most indicators pointing to a sharp voter decline on Nov. 5. "Turnout could fall below 50% for the first time since 1948," warns Louis Harris & Associates CEO Humphrey Taylor. And as the ranks of detached citizens swell, the clout of polarizing special interests is sure to grow.

It's not hard to figure out why folks are tuning out. A healthy economy means fewer angry or fearful voters clamoring for change. Neither President Clinton nor Republican rival Bob Dole holds sway over a large, committed base. Ross Perot hasn't been able to repeat the excitement that energized millions to vote four years ago. No hot-button issue has galvanized the public. And Clinton holds such a commanding lead that for many Americans, the election already seems over.

"MOTOR VOTER." According to an Oct. 17-20 Harris Poll of 943 likely voters, 49% don't believe the election will make much difference in their lives. That may explain why other surveys show interest in the '96 campaign lagging behind both '92, when 55% of eligible voters cast ballots, and '88, when the figure was 50%.

There is one sign of greater citizen involvement; an estimated 15 million people will be registered for the first time by Election Day because of the 1995 "motor voter" law. It requires states to provide speedy ballot registration at motor vehicle and welfare offices. Still, election experts predict that few people who didn't actively seek to register will bother to vote.

Should anyone other than public-minded civic groups care about voters ignoring the campaign? Over the next two weeks, the Democrats should care a lot, because low turnout will probably hurt them more than Republicans, who historically get out to vote more regularly. Recent polls show more Dole backers than Clinton supporters believe there's a lot at stake in this election, and that suggests a depressed Democratic turnout. Clinton would still probably win, though by less than his current 15-to-20-point margin. But Hill Democrats might lose the tight race to seize control of Congress from the GOP. "We're very concerned. Turnout is always tougher for us than for the Republicans," admits Clinton campaign spokesman Donald J. Foley.

Longer term, much more is at stake than victory on Election Day. Unless a cure is found for the public's chronic poll-phobia, the influence of narrow interest groups will grow. "You'll see the dominance of the intensely interested, like the Christian Coalition," says Curtis Gans, head of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Moreover, the intensely interested tend to elect candidates from the right and left fringes as centrist voters opt to stay home.

Another group of winners: senior citizens. They're the most reliable voters, with two-thirds of those 65 and older regularly showing up on Election Day. By contrast, only about a third of those under 25 routinely vote, and recent polls show interest in politics among this group hitting a new low. So politicians will be ever more responsive to seniors' demands to protect their benefits than to younger constituents' pleas to ease the payroll taxes that pay for grandma's Social Security and Medicare. "It becomes a Catch-22," frets national League of Women Voters President Becky Cain. "Politicians don't address the issues of nonvoters, who become more and more alienated." Unless the pols figure out how to reach out to the alienated, the cynical, and the indifferent, the downward spiral of voter participation seems likely to continue.BY OWEN ULLMANNReturn to top


Will Acting U.S. Trade Rep Charlene Barshefsky head Transportation? Democrats say she's a good fit for an agency pursuing "open skies" civil aviation accords. Top Clintonites want to reward Barshefsky, who had expected the permanent job after Mickey Kantor went to Commerce. They have cold feet because Barshefsky once did legal work for Canada, a problem under a new ethics law barring USTR candidates who ever represented foreign nations in trade disputes.BY OWEN ULLMANNReturn to top

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