In the past half of the twentieth century, researchers observed a decline in the voter turnout in federal elections. It has also been observed that the voter turnout has been higher in presidential elections than in midterm elections. The main factors of the declines are the citizens’ negative public attitudes and the widespread political “apathy”. On the other hand, the difference between presidential and midterm election voter turnout was caused by what I call the “media effect”, which is explained in the essay, and also Kernell’s theory.One of the main factors of federal vote turnout decline is the negative public attitudes toward the performance of the politicians and political institutions involved in federal politics. The objects of perceived public displeasure run the complete gamut of personnel and institutions, but when asked, people most prominently mention “politicians” and “the government”, general terms which indicate the broad nature of the attitudes people ascribe to others. These negative attitudes are not necessarily personally held by respondents who voted in the election.
However, it is likely that these feelings are fairly widespread. The lodestones of discontent are politicians and the government. There is a widespread perception that politicians are untrustworthy, selfish, unaccountable, lack credibility, are not true to their word, etc. Similarly, the government, sometimes imagined with a capital “G” and sometimes without, betrays the people’s trust, and accomplishes little. Candidates are also mentioned frequently, because as one might expect, they are perceived to have the same faults as “politicians”. Political parties are singled out as well, because some attributed the lowered voting rate to the difficulties people might have in finding any good choices, or in distinguishing between the parties that do exist. Potential voters have difficulty in relating to the issues brought forward by the parties at election time, or sometimes that the proposed policies are misguided. This factor resulted in fewer and fewer people voting in federal campaigns because people look at politicians as bad people who will not, while in office, be working for the common good.
The other major factor for the decline in voting is public “apathy”. According to many people, we are faced with a situation where people just do not care, do not pay attention, are lazy, or do not find the political scene exciting enough. A variation of this explanation is that people see non-voters as simply interested in other things, giving political participation a low priority. Or perhaps it is because those choosing not to vote have not bothered to get the information required to cast a meaningful vote. Some people simply have attitudes of cynicism, disillusionment, discouragement, frustration and hopelessness, and young people constitute a big percentage of them. Apathy has strongly contributed in the overall vote turnout because many people simple “don’t bother to vote”. Consequently, it is symptomatic of a political system that fails to adequately represent the interests of voters, while at the same time fails to engage citizens in the political process.
There has always been a big gap in voter turnouts between presidential and midterm elections. The presidential campaigns are much stronger than the midterm campaigns: much more costly, more influential, and more important. One of the main factors affecting this big gap is the influence of media, which puts a lot of effort and time into the presidential campaign starting almost three years before the general elections. During this period, people first get to know the presidential candidates, and more importantly, they observe the rising flame of competition between them. This stimulates their political activeness and makes them vote. This effect, which I will call the Media Effect, has very little influence on midterm elections because midterm candidates’ campaigns can not afford huge media expenses.
Finally, the other reason for lower voter turnout in midterm elections than in presidential elections is similar to the coattail effect: presidential elections bring less interested voters to polls, who vote for presidential winner and his congressional party. Those peripheral voters don’t vote in the midterm election, so congressmen of president’s party lose seats. It is also necessary to mention the observation that usually the president’s party usually loses seats in the House of Representatives. This phenomenon is described in Samuel Kernell’s thesis as the Negative Voter Theory: President’s popularity tends to be lower two years after he won presidential election. Economy is often in a slump. People are more likely to vote for negative reasons, than for positive ones. Hence, those disapproving of president’s job performance are more likely to vote than approvers, and they are more likely to vote for the non-presidential party’s congressional candidates.
Historically, voter turnout was considered high during the 19th century among eligible voters; however, it dipped around 1900 because of the party system of 1896-1932 that created one-party states and less general election competition, as well as rise of voter registration systems. Causes of registration system rise were: progressive anti-corruption mood; anti-immigrant sentiment; rural areas sought to maintain their power. Turnout was also reduced by discriminatory voting devices in the South: poll taxes; literacy and constitutional interpretation tests; long residency requirements and early closing dates. Today, all the limiting factors have been eliminated (poll taxes, literacy tests, etc…), but turnout in 20th century has hovered around 50% in presidential elections. There is a necessity that people understand that their vote is important, and that it makes a difference. Because we are a representative democracy, we need to put the right people in office: people who can represent us. If we do not vote, we can not accomplish this.