Political Participation

Political Participation

Americans are less likely to vote than are
Europeans. The reasons for this difference are complex. First, the
United States has an almost bewildering number of elective offices,
an estimated 521,000 positions. Voters’ enthusiasm for elections is
surely deflated by the sheer volume of names with which them must
familiarize themselves. In Europe, in contrast, each voter generally
is confronted with only one or two offices to fill per election, so
that electoral decisions do not impose a burden upon the voter. Even
in Europe, however, voter apathy increases with the number of
elections. Too much democracy, in terms of either selecting
government offices or making policy, is exhausting.

A second explanation for the poor turnout rate involves the mechanics

of voting procedures. It is common in other countries for voting to
be compulsory by law and for registration to be carried out
automatically by the government. Mandatory voting would probably fail
to survive a constitutional challenge in this country on First
Amendment grounds; just as people have a right not to speak
(like refusing to salute the flag), it would seem to follow that they
have a right to refrain from voting-a form of speech-as well.
Simplifying registration is a different matter. Republicans in
particular have tended to resist any easing of registration
standards. President Bush vetoed legislation designed to enable
voters to register when obtaining a driver’s license, legislation
passed in 1993 and in effect as of 1995. As of summer 1997, the
partisan breakdown of new voters remained unknown.

The weakness of political parties must also be
considered. Unlike in the past, parties today lack the patronage and
welfare incentives to mobilize voting blocs. Moreover, the impact of
progressive reforms-such as the Australian ballot and stricter
registration requirements for voting-have contributed to the loss of
party influence over the electorate.

All these factors combine to explain why people
do not vote in large numbers in the United States. Yet it is equally
important to comprehend the other side of the issue, namely, the
factors that do make people vote. Research underscores the
significance of personal characteristics in motivating a person’s
decision to participate on election day. Education is the most
critical variable. As their educational level increases, individuals
develop a stronger sense of civic duty and a greater interest in, and
knowledge of, politics. But education alone is not a sufficient
explanation, since voting rates have continued to decline despite the
proliferation of college degrees in recent decades. Another
characteristic that correlates with voting is age; older voters are
more likely to participate. But here again, overall voting rates have
diminished while the population has aged. Something other than
personal characteristics therefore seem to play a role in election
turnout: the characteristics of the election itself. Most recent
elections have presented voters with uninspiring candidates who
failed to stimulate interest or excitement. The lack of a realigning
issue has made politics boring. However, turnout reaches notable
peaks in certain elections, as in 1964 (a sharp ideological choice
between candidates) and 1992 (an economy in recession and the
charismatic candidate H. Ross Perot). Voters participate when aroused
to do so.

Considering how few tangible rewards
participation produces, it is not surprising that over 40 percent of
Americans either do not participate at all or limit their
participation to voting. Compared to citizens of other democracies,
Americans vote less but engage more in communal activity.

Who participates in politics is an important
issue. Because those who participate are likely to have more
political influence than those who do not. Higher education is the
single most important factor in producing a high degree of
participation. Older persons and men are also likely to be active.
Blacks participate more than whites of equal socioeconomic

Although voter turnout has decreased over the
past twenty years, it seems that other forms of participation, such
as writing letters to public officials and engaging in
demonstrations, have increased. There are many ways in which
Americans can participate in politics-ranging from voting, which a
majority do with some regularity, to belonging to a political club or
organization, which only a few do. In an elaborate analysis of the
ways people participate, Verba and Nie discovered six different kinds
of citizens. 1. Inactives participate little if at all (22 percent).
2. Parochial participants neither vote nor engage in campaigns or
community activity, but they do contact officials about specific,
often personal, problems. 3. Communalists engage in community
activities of a nonpartisan nature. 4. Voting specialists regularly
vote but do little else. 5. Campaigners vote and also participate in
conflictual political activities, such as campaigns. 6. Complete
activists participate in all forms of political activity (11

The absence of citizen involvement in other
countries carries a cost in that governments have a freer hand to
operate without much public scrutiny. As levels of participation
escalate, governments come under greater pressure to exchange
responsible behavior for openness. B. Guy Peters has found this
pattern to exist in contemporary Great Britain: “The increasingly
participative nature of British citizens … is making them
increasingly resentful of their lack of involvement in government,
and there is now a need to reexamine the secrecy and limited
democracy of British government.” Thus the participative character of
Americans has arguably compelled the government to address public
concerns despite the weakness of political parties.


1. Why is voter participation lower in the
United States than in European countries? Would one not expect voter
participation to be higher here, because more offices are up for

2. What have been the policy consequences of a
broader electorate? Which extensions of the suffrage have changed
policy outcomes, and which have mattered little?

3. What could be done to increase voter
turnout? Would a program of reforms to increase voting turnout need
to focus on the cost of voting, the benefits, or both? Which do
current reform proposals do?

4. Why not simply make voting compulsory? If
you do not want to use coercion to induce voting, why not pay people
to vote? If elections are a public good in which all citizens have a
stake, why should we depend on unpaid voluntary action?

5. Why is a large turnout a good thing? We say,
rightly, that we have free speech in this country, even though most
people have nothing particularly controversial or interesting to say.
Why is our country less democratic if people simply choose not to

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