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Midway Through Election Year, Experts See Voter Malaise

July 1, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In tiny Bancroft, Maine, they gave an election and nobody came.

In Texas, a hot primary campaign for governor drew 15 percent of the voters.

In California, about 40 percent went to the polls on primary day, but that still was close to the record low established in 1986 for the state.

Midway through the election year, experts are predicting 1990 will bring a continuation of a 30-year downward trend in voter participation.

Analysts, politicians and voters interviewed around the country said voter frustration and disillusionment and the increasing complexity and stress of life seem to be at least partly to blame.

″I don’t know anybody who was in a 10-minute traffic jam going to work 10 years ago who is not in a 45-minute traffic jam going to work now, and it doesn’t matter who gets elected,″ said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. The private group tracks voter participation.

In 1960, the year John F. Kennedy was elected president, 62.8 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

By 1988, when George Bush was elected, turnout had dropped to 50.16 percent.

In 1986, the most recent non-presidential general election year, only 37 percent made it to the polls.

Edward J. Rollins, director of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, recently predicted turnout this year could go below 30 percent.

″I think part of it just has to do with folks just generally giving up on all of us,″ said Al La Pierre, executive director of the Democratic party in Alabama. In his state, the turnout of 750,000 voters in the June 5 primary was down by about 200,000 from 1986.

″They just don’t see any need to go do it any more, which is sad,″ La Pierre said.

Toni Grygo, who runs a hair styling parlor in Pittsburgh, said, ″The feedback that I get is that they are disillusioned. This is the main thing I hear from the women and some of the men that I do.″

In Bancroft, a rural community in northern Maine with 61 residents and 35 registered voters, Deputy Town Clerk Mary Irish said two or three people usually come out to vote in off-year elections. In presidential years, she said, turnout gets up to 14.

In the June 12 Maine primary, nobody voted in Bancroft. Voting statewide appeared low, but final turnout figures had not been tabulated.

″It was a beautiful day and there should have been greater interest,″ said Keron Kerr, the state Democratic chairman.

Alan Heslop, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said part of the problem is population growth. After the 199l redistricting, California is expected to have legislative districts of 750,000 people, three times what they were in 1950.

″People feel powerless,″ said Heslop. ″It is hard to convince oneself that one vote is going to make a difference in these enormous, giant districts.″

Maybe the vote in Boise County, Idaho, helps make his point. The sparsely populated county had a turnout of 42.51 percent in Idaho’s May 22 primary, about the same as in 1986 and much higher than turnout statewide in this year’s primary.

″I think people vote here because we are so small that we feel like it really matters,″ said Jan Longpre, city editor of the weekly Idaho World newspaper in Idaho City. ″Even if it doesn’t, we think it does.″

Heslop thinks people are turned off by the slick packaging that is wrapped around today’s candidates.

″I think a lot of people are tired of the sound-bite approach to politics, the graphics mailer, the snappy computerized letter,″ he said. ″People are seeing that all of these things are in fact means of pulling the wool over the voters’ eyes.″

″That may to a degree be true,″ agrees Alabama Democrat La Pierre. ″But how else can you reach the masses but through TV?″

Gans believes negative campaigning is a big part of the problem.

″What they want to do with those ads is create doubts about the character of the opponent and weaken the impulse to vote among weak partisans and undecideds,″ Gans said. ″When this is reciprocally done, it has got to weaken the impulse on both sides.″

Nevertheless, despite a campaign widely criticized as negative, Virginia voters turned out in record numbers last year to make Douglas Wilder the nation’s first elected black governor.

″In certain situations you can transcend the negative campaigns because the issues are more important,″ Gans said.

Something else has changed beside campaigns, said Heslop, and that is the widespread perception among voters that incumbents have become unbeatable.

″It is something new for them to know that there is no way of throwing the rascals out,″ he said.

Frank Sullivan, who runs a landscaping business in Cincinnati, said he votes anyway.

″I feel like it’s our only revenge,″ Sullivan said. ″I don’t think they pay any attention to us, but we are only making it worse for ourselves if we don’t let them know we are out here.″

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