Primaries Point to Low Election Turnout
By Dan Balz
Voters have turned out in record-low numbers so far this year, foreshadowing a midterm election that could produce one of the lowest levels of participation in history, according to a report released yesterday.
The pattern in this year's primary elections continues a downward spiral in voter turnout over the past three decades that experts say reflects growing disaffection among many voters with the American political system.
The report by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate also challenged assertions that the results in primary elections this year, in which only one incumbent member of Congress had been defeated, signal a contented electorate.
Curtis Gans, who directed the study, said the ongoing erosion in voter turnout, particularly apparent among those with the lowest levels of income and education and among the young, suggests that an important part of the population has lost faith in the political system and finds little incentive to participate.
"It's hard to conceive of a contented electorate when the people who are voting least are the people at the bottom of the income scale, at the bottom of the age scale and the least educated," Gans said. "They are the ones who are feeling no hope in the system."
The news was not uniformly bad. California's new open primary produced a notable increase in participation earlier this month. There also were significant gains in turnout in Republican primaries for governor in Alabama and Nebraska and smaller increases in the Republican Senate primary in Illinois and the Republican gubernatorial primary in Arkansas.
But overall, turnout in primaries held through the middle of this month was just 19.6 percent of the eligible electorate, a decline of 2.7 percentage points from 1994 levels. Ten states already have set individual records for the lowest primary turnout. The highest level of participation in primary elections occurred in 1970, when 32.2 percent of eligible voters turned out.
Gans said the trends this year point to what could be the worst turnout in American history. "If it just declines by the amount it has so far, we will be as low or lower than 1942," he said. "If it declines one percentage [point] more, we will be as low or lower than 1926, and before that there was nothing lower."
Gans said the results this year reinforced "30 years of progressively dampening interest in American politics." The 1996 election, the report said, produced the lowest presidential year turnout (at 49 percent of eligible voters) since 1924. Outside the South, which has seen increases because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and increased competition between the two parties, turnout was at its lowest point since 1824.
The study also attempted to analyze national and state efforts to make it easier for citizens to vote, such as early voting at designated sites, no-fault absentee voting or election day registration. Contrary to expectations, the study concluded, nearly all the states that did the most to encourage participation suffered the largest declines in participation in 1996.
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