September 12, 2000

Looking for Voters

A Steady Decline  

vanishingWashington, we have a problem. That's what the Vanishing Voter project may soon conclude from its one-year study of voter involvement in the coming national election. What is making voters "vanish," and what can you do about it?

While candidates Bush and Gore spend the final two months of their presidential campaigns looking for votes, a team of researchers at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will be looking for voters.

"If you look over a 20- to 30-year period, there's been a steady decline in voter turnout for elections," says Tom Patterson, a professor at the Kennedy School and the director of the Vanishing Voter project. He adds that the 1996 presidential election provided a low point, as less than 50% of eligible American voters showed up at the polls.

Consider the statistics for yourself. In the table below, you'll find a comparison of how many eligible voters turned out in some of the presidential elections since 1960.

Voting Age Population
# Who Voted
% Who Voted
109,159, 000

Source: Federal Election Commission

  • What is the difference in percentage points between the voter turnout in 1960 and the turnout in 1996?

  • Estimate the difference in the number of people who turned out to vote in these two elections.

  • Explain how the percentage of voters could be so much lower in 1996 even though the numbers of voters in 1996 was so much higher than in 1960.


The Voter Involvement Index  

The declining statistics helped give birth to the Vanishing Voter project. Since last November, researchers have conducted weekly telephone surveys of people old enough to vote. They ask four basic questions: whether these potential voters are currently paying close attention to the campaign, thinking about it, talking about it, or following it in the news.

The idea, say the project's organizers, is to explore how these behaviors might be related to voter turnout.

  • What questions would you add to get the most accurate picture of voter interest and involvement?

  • Are there any of the four survey questions that you would remove? Why?

For each question, the researchers calculate the percentage of people who respond "yes." Then they combine these four percentages into a single average. The Vanishing Voter project calls this average the Voter Involvement Index. View the week-by-week results, starting last November.

voter involvement index
  • Based on these results, what was the highest percentage of voter involvement over the past 10 months, and when did it occur?

  • Using these results and the following information, come up with your own theory of voter involvement during this election season.

    The first presidential primary, held in New Hampshire, took place in early February.

    Super Tuesday, which featured 16 state primaries on a single day, occurred in early March.

    The Republican and Democratic National Conventions took place during August.

The Vanishing Voter project's Tom Patterson offers his own answers. "What's really important to voters during a campaign are the key events and periods—primaries, conventions, presidential debates. These are a hook to draw people in. There was a spike of real voter interest in early February and early March and during the period of the conventions in August.

"Along with this spike in interest goes learning," adds Patterson. "The times that people are more interested are when they become more knowledgeable."


The Challenge to Youth  

Despite this year's periods of voter interest, Vanishing Voter researchers agree that their Voter Involvement Index would probably have been higher decades ago. The other bad news is that 18- to 29-year-olds in this year's survey scored considerably lower than the rest of the voting-age population.

"This generation of young people is pretty tuned out," says Patterson. He says it is partly because of what they tune in. Whereas network news programs were once the only television available at 6 p.m., the explosion of cable channels has taken younger viewers in other directions.

But, Patterson adds, the behavior of politicians has earned the public's disinterest and distrust as well. "People are somewhat disgusted," he observes. "There's a kind of cloud hanging over politics, partially due to scandals, the money in politics, and the negative news coverage. And for young people, there have not been any great events that tell them politics is important. There has been no war, no Depression, no Civil Rights movement.

"We don't need to have everybody engaged in the political process for it to work well. But we do need a critical mass. If we go through three consecutive younger generations of noninvolvement, we'll have a dismal situation."

Possible solutions suggested by the Vanishing Voter project include: helping youngsters develop a "news habit;" adding election awareness to the curriculum; and making students aware that election-related issues—from student loans to social security—affect them.

  • What ways would you suggest to increase the involvement of young people in the coming presidential election?


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