Forget Bill and Bob - the real winner could be apathy

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The Independent Online
The US presidential election is nine days away and, in the absence of any serious doubt as to who the winner will be, one troubling question hangs in the air: will America's non-voters make history by outnumbering the voters, as they have been threatening to do for the last 20 years?

In no other settled Western democracy would the question arise. In the US it is entirely valid. In 1988, when George Bush and Michael Dukakis ran, the non-voters missed victory by a whisker, registering a tally of 49.9 per cent. Last time around the voters bounced back with a 55 per cent turnout, but the unusual circumstances created by Ross Perot's successful participation will not be repeated in this year's one-horse race.

Why do Americans vote in such low numbers? One of the few consistent threads the political scientists have been able to identify among the non-voters is that the biggest number are young.

Curious to find out more, I took over a freshman class last week at Georgetown University - Bill Clinton's Alma Mater - and submitted the students to a little market research. The class consisted of six males and six females; all but one were of voting age. I asked why they thought so few Americans voted.

"People feel nothing much will change," said Bryan from Massachusetts. "Our lives are not going to change whether it's Clinton or Dole."

"You vote and then all you get for the next four years is rhetoric, back and forth, back and forth," said Vivian, who is 17 so cannot vote this time.

"People feel that any way you vote, they're all basically lying," said Greg, to nods all around. "There's a total lack of trust in government."

"In a school like Georgetown lots of kids are politically active," observed Meg. "But in general people are apathetic about the outcome because they feel it won't affect them at all."

"Polls are a problem," added Greg, thoughtfully. "They act as a deterrent. People think the outcome is decided before they vote."

"Much more important," said Glen, "are the state and local elections. The people elected there do have a say in building roads, infrastructure. But the presidential elections, what do they mean for ordinary people?"

That all summed up fairly pleasingly what I had found elsewhere to be the views not just of young people, but of a large chunk of the general electorate. The presidential elections were a) irrelevant to most people's everyday concerns; b) there was next to no practical difference between the Republicans and the Democrats; c) you can't trust them and they're full of hot air; d) we know who's going to win, so why bother?

So, I asked: how many in the class planned to vote on 5 November? Every hand shot up, except Vivian's: "I'm on the outside, and it really bites to have to wait till I'm a senior," she complained.

But why did they want to vote, having argued that the whole exercise was pointless?

After a nonplussed pause, Julie volunteered that it was her right to vote; Meg that it was her first election and she was excited. Mike said he would be more excited if he felt it would make a difference, and Greg said that people who did not vote had no right to complain.

Greg's was the most convincing response. The rest appeared to be driven either by an irrational sense of duty or by the thrill of taking the symbolic step into adulthood that a vote represents.

Bryan touched on the heart of the matter when he said he would be scared if the same party won both the White House and the Congress.

Best, in other words, not to give the politicians too much influence or they might muck things up. "We're basically a stable country," summed up Julie, who had not said much. "We'd be more interested in elections and politics if we had more strife."