Voter turnout was not a big surprise

The pseudo-debates, “soft-money” commercials and relentless spin-doctoring of the 96 elections are thankfully behind us. To no one’s surprise, President Clinton won a second term by a substantial margin and the Republicans retained control of Congress. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot picked up a paltry 8 percent of the popular vote. Green Party contender Ralph Nader — the hope of many progressives, myself included — bombed with only half a million votes nationwide. And voters in California passed Proposition 209, banning affirmative action in public hiring and education.
If you believe the mainstream media, these results indicate widespread public approval of conservative-leaning centrism, further shrinking of government, attacks on social spending and the status quo.
Yet there is a huge problem with this interpretation: Although more money was spent on political campaigns in 96 than during any election year in American history, and although media coverage was probably more comprehensive than it has ever been, only 48 percent of the electorate bothered to show up at the polls. Such apathy isn’t exactly new. The United States — much to our collective shame — has long trailed the rest of the world’s industrialized democracies in voter turnout.
But even by our own pathetic standards, the level of popular participation in this past election was depressingly low. In fact, it was the smallest turnout for a presidential election in 72 years. If this was a ringing endorsement of the status quo, it is hard to imagine what would count as dissent.
Given that so many eligible voters boycotted Tuesday’s election, we should perhaps be more concerned with the question of why the majority abstained rather than why members of the voting minority cast their ballots as they did. And, sadly, even a cursory review reveals that Americans had no shortage of legitimate reasons for avoiding the voting booth on Nov. 5.
To begin with, potential voters faced — as they have for some time — a paucity of meaningful choices on the ballot. With the exception of a handful of contests, such as the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Paul Wellstone and Rudy Boschwitz, Democratic and Republican candidates around the country generally agreed on big questions of policy while differing over petty details. Thus, Clinton wanted to balance the budget by the year 2000 while Dole insisted it could be done sooner; Dole wanted an across-the-board tax cut, Clinton targeted several ones; both candidates supported increased defense spending but quibbled over the exact amount, etc.
Meanwhile, third party candidates or independents who challenged the two-party duopoly either were denied access to the media or, like Ross Perot, fundamentally agreed with the major party candidates on all but a few signature issues. In any case, a lack of viable political options on the ballot probably kept a lot of progressives and independents home on election day.
Another thing that kept people from the polls was the absence of attention by major party candidates and mainstream commentators to issues ordinary people in this country actually care about. Except for some third-party candidates and a few old-fashioned liberals like Wellstone, no one talked much during this campaign season about the deepening crisis in our central cities or about the disappearance of living-wage jobs or about the steady growth of the financially insecure, part-time and temporary work force.
Also “below the radar” were issues like the shortage of affordable housing, the need to reform our hyper-expensive health care system, the underfunding of the majority of our public schools and the ongoing degradation of the environment. Nor was much said about public transportation or about investing in our crumbling public infrastructure. Because politicians spent the past few months steadfastly ignoring such popular citizen concerns, it was only fair that on Nov. 5, the citizens opted to ignore the politicians.
Then, of course, there’s the attack ad factor. Devoid of substantive disagreements and serious debate, the presidential campaign, as well as a number of Congressional contests, devolved into vicious orgies of mudslinging. Caustic negative ads, paid for by special interest money, saturated the airwaves wherever there was a hotly contested race. The nastiness and vulgarity of Rudy Boschwitz’s anti-Wellstone spots were a case in point. The sheer volume and ugliness of such ads no doubt turned off a lot of decent, civic-minded people who otherwise would’ve headed to the polls.
Then there’s the sad fact that we as a nation make voting and becoming eligible to vote as inconvenient as possible. We are one of the few democracies on earth that has not designated our election day an official national holiday. And while Minnesota has gone to great lengths to make registering easy — by allowing same-day registration, by permitting a wide variety of proofs of identification and so forth — a lot of states, especially in the South, haven’t. The considerable obstacles to registering and voting that exist in this country certainly don’t encourage widespread popular participation in the political process.
Finally, you can’t underestimate the extent to which voter turnout was depressed by the public’s growing cynicism about the influence of big money in our political system. Polls show that strong majorities believe Democratic and Republican elected officials care more about their campaign contributors than they do about their constituents. For once, the majority is right. As in years past, most of the funding for the major parties’ campaigns and party- building activities this year came from business. And as usual, these corporate contributors will now demand a whole slew of business-friendly reforms — a lower capital gains tax, less stringent environmental regulations, privatization of Medicare and Social Security — in return for their generosity. Sure, Bob Dole brought up the need for campaign finance reform a couple times as election day grew near, but only in order to humiliate Clinton for taking overseas campaign contributions. Would-be voters saw his sudden concern for cleaning up campaign funding as pure opportunism and, seeing no other candidate serious about fighting corruption, stayed home.
In short, Americans had such an abundance of reasons to stay clear of their neighborhood polling place this time around that the real mystery isn’t so much why the majority didn’t vote, but why anybody else did. Nov. 5 was yet another sign of the massive and totally justified collapse of the people’s confidence in their political representatives, a collapse that has been the defining feature of our civic life for at least two decades. A lot will have to change, and change dramatically, for that confidence to be restored.
Steve Macek’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.