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A Research on Voter Turnout Decrease in America

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Voting is the fundamental right of every adult citizen in a democracy. Independently of sex, race, class, or occupation, every US citizen gets the opportunity to choose who represents them. However, universal suffrage was not always there; american women, for instance, had to fight for it for almost a 100 years before being granted the right to vote in 1920. Afro-Americans living in american soil were not granted the same voting rights as their compatriots until 1965, after decades of social struggle and barbarties. The road to universal suffrage has not been easy, specially in the US; in spite of this, almost half of all adult americans choose not to exercise their right to vote. Regarding the US presidential elections, since the 1980s on average only approximately 50-55 percent of eligible voters do in fact vote in such elections. Voter turnout has steadily decreased throughout the 20th and 21st centuries; as explained throughout this research paper, the belief that our own particular vote is negligible is widespread among the population and has greatly contributed to this decrease.

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Interestingly enough, nonvoting occurs more frequently among the members of the population who are economically disadvantaged and who have low levels of education. Consider how different elections might be if candidates knew that a very high percentage of the voting-age population planned to vote. The range of issues that might debated would dramatically change if candidates knew that they had to compete for the support of the poorest and the most marginalized members of the populace. It is no wonder then that politicians in the US make no effort to raise awareness on the importance of voting, and have even tried at times to reduce the turnout deliberately because it favoured a particular candidate. Regardless of the passiveness of US policy makers about this issue, there are certain factors which can in fact help increase (although not dramatically) the voter turnout, one of those being negative campaigning. Despite what one might initially think, this sort of campaigning has in fact contributed to increase voter turnout, as will be demonstrated throughout this paper.

Human Behaviour, Personal Interpretation and Turnout Factors

Science has limits, both in terms of what it has produced in the way of knowledge and in terms of the logic by which it operates. A problem surrounding all political studies is the issue regarding the uniqueness of human behaviour. If behaviour does not repeat, it becomes difficult to observe empirically a sufficient number of instances of a particular behaviour to provide confirmation or falsification of that behaviour. This problem, which philosophers and political scientists have tried to tackle, would imply that an empirically based science of politics is limited by the essence of the subject matter (human behaviour) under observation. As Ellen Grigsby points out, cultural and social trends, as well as historical tradition, play a huge role in political studies. Taking this into account, it would not be bold to assume that elections across regions and eras do not perfectly repeat.

Secondly, according to Daniel Goleman (an American psychologist, writer and journalist), human brains cannot operate without bias. The hypothesis supported in this work has to be empirically supported with data, which indispensably must be interpreted to some degree. Because interpretation is an inevitable part of observation, personal bias or opinion in the process of interpreting may be unavoidable. In order to prevent such interpretations from being infected with misconceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes, the idols to which Francis Bacon referred in the 17th century (Idols of the marketplace, of the tribe, of the den, and of the theater) must be avoided through the use of science (referred to in P.23 of Ellen Grigsby Analyzing Politics). These idols can form the basis of a society’s discriminatory attitude, while on the other hand science, with its empiricism and logical methods of data analysis, can offer an alternative to such distortions.

Taking these two limitations into consideration (the danger of the idols and the inability of science to grasp the uniqueness of human behaviour), an arrangement between the both must be reached. Throughout this paper, an empirically based analysis will be used to reduce the dangers faced by the idols which we all share, while at the same time trying to diminish the issues raised by human behaviour. Therefore, and for this reason, this paper will focus on the presidential elections held in the United States in a particular decade (2000-2010), and how the different levels of controversy affected their respective turnout. By focusing on a particular society in a particular region over a predetermined period of time, the behavioral differences of voters in each election are significantly reduced, thus allowing for a more complete and thorough political study.

In addition to the two limitations already mentioned, a final one has to be taken into account: Additional voter turnout factors. Anybody with some little intellectual capacity can correctly guess that there are several factors that affect voter turnout. Some of these may include compulsory voting, electoral system (single member district plurality or proportional representation), institutional variables (unicameralism vs bicameralism), etc. In spite of this, and due to the requirements for this research paper, I have decided to develop a hypothesis focusing on just one voter turnout factor (negative campaigning), as explained in the Hypothesis section.

“Negative campaigning in elections leads to a higher voter turnout”

According to Ellen Grigsby, “formulating a hypothesis can be a key step in the application of the scientific method to the study of politics”, and defines it as “a statement proposing a specific relationship between phenomena”. Furthermore, the renowned political theorist holds that in order to be able to test a hypothesis with empirical data, political scientists must follow the logic of the operational definitions contained in the hypothesis. In order to develop an operational hypothesis, the variables (the phenomena linked together in a hypothesis) must be clearly defined, as well as the relationship that is being measured. Taking all of this into consideration, it is more than reasonable that the hypothesis that here will be supported, tested, and validated, follows this same logic. Firstly, the two variables that will be examined are negative campaigning (independent variable X) and voter turnout (dependent variable Y). Negative campaigning will be defined as the process, used by parties, of deliberately spreading negative information about their opposition in order to worsen their image. On the other hand, voter turnout will be defined as the percentage of eligible voters who decide to exercise their right to vote. Furthermore, in order to test the correlated relationship between both variables, we must thoroughly define the hypothesis, which will read as follows: “Negative campaigning in elections leads to a higher voter turnout”. Thus, the objective throughout this paper will be to examine such hypothesis.

In order to do so, and before checking its validity against hard-proof empirical data, the reasoning behind the development of the hypothesis must be explained. According to Jessica R. Adolino and Charles H. Blake, “citizens enter the voting booth with the expectation that their actions affect not only who governs but the policies that governments adopt” (Comparing Public Policies: Issues and Choices in Six Industrialized Countries). But what happens if citizens do not believe in the power of their actions? What happens if citizens across a nation believe that their individual effect would be negligible? The US presidential elections have suffered a constant and steady drop in voter turnout since the 1960s, reaching an almost all time low in 1996 with an alarming 49.0% of voter turnout (their lowest figure since 1924, when they had the lowest turnout in history, with just 48.9%).

According to a recent Google study titled ‘Understanding America’s ‘Interested Bystander:’ A Complicated Relationship with Civic Duty’, one of the reasons for the worrying decrease in voter participation is the “interested bystander”. The study, written by Kate Krontiris, John Webb, Charlotte Krontiris and Chris Chapman, extensively explains the causes behind low voter turnout in the States. In it, the “interested bystander” is defined as “that portion of the population that is paying attention to the world around them, but not regularly voicing their opinions or taking action”. In other words, these bystanders are those who, while politically informed, refuse to involve themselves in the civic and political sphere. According to the Google study, almost half of all adult americans (48.9%) can be classified as such. Google explains that the individuals included in this category suffer from what is commonly known in politics as voter apathy, that is, a lack of care. In Google’s view, this is not because the individuals are not interested in politics, but rather because they believe that their actions would have no meaning.

In line with the thesis maintained by Google in their Civic Duty study, it is worth mentioning the findings made by Richard Sclove in his book Democracy and Technology. Richard Sclove, an interdisciplinary researcher, writer, social activist, and speaker, argues that one of the reasons for society’s weakened sense of civic duty is technological development. In his view, technological developments, mainly “automobilization”, “suburban living”, and “an explosive proliferation of home entertainment devices” have greatly contributed to a disconnection of individuals to their community, and to their rising lack of interest in policy making decisions. According to Ellen Grigsby, before the Introduction of new technologies in everyday life (like television), almost all party’s resources during election time were used for intensive campaigning in order to increase voter turnout as much as possible. With the appearance of the media, these party resources have been redirected towards media campaigns. It is only logical to assume that these media campaigns have led to the appearance of the “interested bystanders”.

Instead of being directly approached and persuaded of the importance of their actions, individuals nowadays are constantly fed all sorts of information in order to improve or damage the image of certain candidates. The campaigns become so long that some analysts have termed them “endless”, which inevitably exhaustes voters to their very core. Furthermore, these new technologies have made it incredibly easy for people to conclude that their votes have much less of an impact on policy making as previously thought. To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at an article published in the year 2000 by the National Journal. In it, the journal reported that an experienced lobbyist approached a particular congressman regarding sugar price supports. This lobbyist then proceeded to explain how, regardless of the position the congressman took regarding the issue, the firm could help his interests. The congressman then decided to let the lobbyist choose which group would have the honor of supporting the congressman with their contributions. This example (from 19 years ago), along with many others, show the lack of principles in policy making in today’s world, which has only helped spread the common belief that politicians act in their own best interest. This belief can also be seen as one of the reasons for the low voter turnout in the US. Individuals no longer believe “that their actions affect not only who governs but the policies that governments adopt”, and therefore less individuals are inclined to vote.

Furthermore, according to Ellen Grigsby, nonvoting occurs more frequently among the members of the population who are economically disadvantaged and who have low levels of education. In addition to what has already been said, it is only reasonable to intuit some sort of relationship between the interested bystanders and the disadvantaged members of society. Those who do not regularly voice their opinions nor take action are rather often those who are economically disadvantaged and who have low levels of education. Taking this into account, I believe that the unprivileged portion of the american population decides to exercise their right to vote when they believe they are prepared to do so. In election campaigns that deal with issues which require certain levels of education (economy, trade relations, debt, public spending, etc), the uneducated bystanders feel unmotivated to vote. This occurs, in my view, because they think that their actions would either have no effect on the outcome of the election or in the posterior policy making process, or because they simply do not see themselves as sufficiently qualified to vote when such matters are being debated.

On the other hand however, elections can also revolve around the character of the candidates, when the Democrat and the Republican candidates are advertised as products. When this occurs, when the general media attention drifts away from complex issues and towards the personality of the candidates and their respective personal flaws, the general public feels more encouraged to vote. Regarding that less educated portion of the population, when elections concentrate on non-complex issues, these people feel more encouraged to vote. Through the use of negative campaigning (hurting the persona of your opponent), people no longer feel like they have to chose the most capable candidate to guide the country (something they think they are unqualified to do), but rather the lesser of two evils. Therefore, turnout increases, because people feel capable to decide which candidate they like the most, and as well, they become aware of the importance of their actions (it is now important that a particular candidate does not get elected; people no longer want to impact the policy making process so much, but rather that a particular candidate gets elected in detriment of the other).

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It is clear that eligible voters no longer believe in the importance of their actions, primarily because in many cases politicians want to keep it that way. Parties are aware that a lower turnout can sometimes benefit their possibilities of winning, and therefore implement strategies to try and reduce turnout. Furthermore, negative campaigning has the power to clearly influence elections, one way or another, and their impact on the final turnout is considerable. Therefore, and in order to check whether this effect is positive or negative, we will now dive into some of the US presidential elections of the first decade of the 21st century: The 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections.

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