CNN/TIME AllPolitics Vote '96

Fix Unclear For Low Voter Turnout

By Gene Randall/CNN


WASHINGTON (CNN, Nov. 13) -- Only about 49 percent of this country's registered electorate bothered to vote for president this year, down six points from 1992.

There were some exceptions. Hispanic turnout was up sharply in California, Florida and Arizona. President Clinton won all three states. And a large elderly vote reflected fears on medicare and social security.

But, the turnout picture was generally bleak.

young voters

The most pronounced decline was among young people, despite such efforts as Rock the Vote. Rock the Vote's Ricky Seidman says, "What is really necessary to engage young people or anyone really in the process is to understand that the people who are trying to get their support, the politicians, are meaningfully talking about things that are relevant in their daily lives, and I didn't see that this year in the campaign."

This country has seen a 22 percent decline in presidential voting since 1960.

And students of the process say the numbers are troubling.

"There is a growing disconnect between the American people, their leaders and their politics," says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of American Electorate, "and I think it is a dangerous thing for the democratic future."

hispanic voters

Why are so many voters turned off? Experts point to campaigns waged with a flood of money, largely spent on negative television ads, with issues often ignored.

"The candidates, for the most part, are throwing mud at each other, or reading scripted lines that move nobody," says American University professor Allan Lichtman.

Special factors may have been a drag this year: neither President Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole generated much voter excitement. Ross Perot was no longer a fresh-faced alternative.

With a race that seemed less competitive than four years ago, television news spent less time covering it, and a thriving economy meant fewer people were driven to the polls by anger, as they were when George Bush was defeated for re-election.

no one worth voting for

So while something like the motor-voter law made it easier to register, it couldn't provide the motivation to vote.

"Motivation and mobilization were the two great missing elements this year," says Lichtman. "The parties gave the public no positive reason to go to the polls."

Is there a fix for the turnout problem? How about changing the way national campaigns are run -- with candidates counting less on what is described as "remote-control TV politics" and going back to grass-roots campaigning? Don't look for it to happen anytime soon.

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