In Praise of Low Voter Turnout

America has always carried on a peculiar and somewhat messy love affair with Puritanism. True, the original group of sober, brown-hatted colonists have long since slipped into the darkness of New England cemeteries and Barker Center seminars, their memories preserved only through The Crucible and the grimly authoritarian spire of Mather House. But the Puritan impulse, with its mix of overheated moralism and apocalyptic fervor, is alive and well in American politics. And the most puzzling of these latter-day Puritans emerge every election season, toting charts and graphs and public policy initiatives, all intended to prove what their more theologically minded forebears always believed: namely, that America is on a fast-track express to hell. Their devil is no longer Lucifer, who so terrified the divines of the 17th century--rather, they see perdition looming in the "crisis" of low voter-turnout.

"In ever larger numbers over the past three decades," the Kennedy School's Vanishing Voter Project warns balefully, "Americans have been tuning out the campaign and staying home on Election Day." To combat this trend, which has seen turnout fall from an all-time high of 63 percent in 1960 to less than 50 percent in the Clinton-Dole race of '96, the election Puritans offer a laundry-list of reforms--a campaign-finance overhaul, mandatory voting and an improvement in what one watchdog group calls the "quality of the campaign discourse." Otherwise, these storm crows warn, American democracy will wither away and vanish, like the dodo and France's ancien regime.

To which any sensible observer ought to reply, nonsense.


First of all, it is by no means clear that the supposed voter-turnout "crisis" actually exists. To judge by the rhetoric of the Vanishing Voter types, we have fallen from some political state of grace, a moment that seems to be located (as many progressive Edens are) in the early years of the Kennedy Administration. But America's past does not begin with JFK's tawdry Camelot, and a glance at the history of American voting patterns suggests that large-scale peaks and troughs in voter-turnout are the norm, rather than the exception.

Indeed, the 1960s were an exceptional period in American life, and it is foolish and even delusional to imagine that one could recreate the voter interest generated by a Kennedy-Nixon race at the height of the Cold War in the prosperous and meretricious 1990s, with the lackluster Bob Dole facing off against the charmingly venal Bill Clinton.

But even if we could do so--through endless motor voter laws, voter drives and (God help us) mandatory voting--is there any reason to suppose that we should? Is low voter-turnout actually a "problem" as the Vanishing Voter project imagines it to be? Is a nation where half the voting public steers clear of the polls each November on its way to some civic version of Puritan hell?

The answer is by no means clear. From a purely instrumental standpoint, there is little evidence (at least in national elections) that boosting voter-turnout fundamentally alters the complexion of an election. Had the recent presidential campaigns been re-run with everyone voting, Clinton still would have defeated Dole and Bush the elder, Bush still would have trounced Dukakis, and so on, as far back as such statistics are kept.

But still, one might protest, surely a democracy depends upon an informed, engaged citizenry, and surely the best democracy is one where everyone is well- informed and everyone votes?


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