Reaching voters

Sunday, April 18, 2004

In the first installment last Sunday of an occasional series of stories -- called "How we choose" and planned for the months leading up to this November's general election -- the Associated Press looked at why more Americans aren't participating in our Democratic process.

There has never been an American election in which everybody voted. The same constitutional guarantees that give us the right to vote also give us the right to stay home on Election Day. In the 2000 election, just over half of Americans of voting age participated.

When all the votes are split among the presidential candidates, it turns out 24 percent of the adult population in 2000 backed George W. Bush, and the same percentage supported Bill Clinton in 1996. Less than a fourth of all adults in the country picked the president.

Is that cause for concern?

Over the years, large numbers of voters have been registered in attempts to get more voters to go to the polls. Every time more individuals are registered, it takes more voters at the polls to prop up the percentages.

When women won the suffrage movement, when the voting age was lowered to 18, when motor voter registration was introduced -- all added large numbers of voters to registration lists, but that didn't guarantee more Americans would actually cast ballots. In addition, large numbers of voting-age people in the United States are not citizens or are in prison and, therefore, ineligible to participate.

There is ample reason to question whether the goal really should be more voters. Or should it be more informed voters? What good would be achieved if more Americans blindly cast ballots without good information on which to base their choices?

Modern political campaign tactics do little to inform voters in ways that motivate voters to go to the polls. Nor do such tactics give voters much useful information about many crucial issues.

Any effort to get more people to go to the polls should be based on properly informing voters beyond the negative, character-ripping campaign ads that fill the airwaves in the weeks before any major election.

The campaign strategy for most candidates has only one objective: winning. Voters are bombarded by tactics designed to make voters choose one candidate -- or oppose another candidate. As campaigns unfold, voters are repeatedly hit with the same information over and over or last-minute smears intended to move polling numbers one direction or another.

Is this the best way to inform voters? By all appearances, campaign operatives don't care. They only want their candidates to take the oath of office, not make concession speeches.

In national and statewide elections, the news media tend to become enablers of campaign teams bent on a winning strategy. Too little effort is made to inform voters about important issues and key differences among candidates. Moreover, efforts to address this concern fail to grab the attention of uninterested would-be voters.

Whether or not modern campaigns really are that much different that any others in American history is a matter for debate. But our political system, as frayed as it is, works.

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