The lowest national voter turnout occurred in 1942, when only 35.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. If estimates are correct, Tuesday's election may rival, or be lower than, that 60-year-old figure.
If World War II was not sufficient motivation to go to the polls, the current"war on terrorism" may not be, either. What is wrong with us? As we battle totalitarian societies and anti-democratic philosophies and theologies, we should be driven to vote now, more than ever. I have voted in every presidential and "off-year" election since I was old enough. Something called "citizenship" - that was instilled in me by my parents and schools - seems to have been expelled from contemporary education and over-stressed modern life.
Part of the non-participation problem is that voters perceive politicians to be insincere and more interested in their careers than their country. There is enough evidence to support such cynicism. Too many Republicans engage in bidding wars with Democrats to see who can outspend the other on wasteful and needless programs. Democrats vote for higher taxes, bigger government and more regulation and almost never speak of personal responsibility. Both parties make promises they don't mean and won't keep. On rare occasions when people write or phone their elected representative, they get a form letter or rehearsed reply from aides, but little satisfaction unless it relates to a minor problem with a government check.
Reuters last week quoted Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, as saying, "The problem with turnout is motivation. People don't see a reason to vote. We have a lower level of trust in our institutions than we have had since the 1920s, or probably of all time."
The most disenchanted are young people, between 18 and 20, whose participation has fallen by 40 percent since 1972. Voters 75 and older are voting at a 20 percent greater rate since 1964. Those with the lowest incomes and least education also show sharper declines in turnout.
There are many explanations for the drop in voter turnout, but one of them must surely be the lack of passion and candor among politicians. Polls have replaced principles, so politicians say mostly what their pollsters tell them the voters want to hear. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone has been praised for his candor and passion, but how many politicians emulate those qualities? Very few, because the all-important swing vote decides based on impressions, not convictions.
Another reason for the low turnout is the media, especially television. When issues are reduced to brief sound bites, politicians learn to speak in clipped cadences rather than substantive sentences. Every effort to increase voter participation - from"motor voter" registration, longer polling hours, early voting and mail ballots - has failed to achieve its objective.
Politicians seem content to have only the special interests decide elections, because they provide the campaign money. Democracy suffers when so few people vote and so few decide who will lead us. This election will determine who controls the Senate. Senators will decide who gets to be a federal judge. The judges - whether they read or rewrite our Constitution - will decide issues of life, death and freedom for decades to come.
If that is not sufficient motivation to vote, nothing is - and we will, as always, deserve the crummy leadership we get. The excuse for not voting given to Reuters by Susan Peak of New Britain, Conn., is pathetic: "I don't have the time. It's terrible, I know. I'm not sure it would make any difference if I voted. I'm not stupid - I have two masters' degrees and I'm thinking, 'What difference does it make?"' The answer is that it makes no difference if she doesn't vote because her voice will not be heard. Can't we do better than this?