They are not keen, but they are coming out to vote

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Good news for democracy from the nation that has given the world most reason to be cynical about it. We report today predictions that the turnout in tomorrow's United States presidential contest could hit a record high. We civic-minded Europeans have long been horrified by turnout figures in America, which have historically been only a little over 50 per cent.

Good news for democracy from the nation that has given the world most reason to be cynical about it. We report today predictions that the turnout in tomorrow's United States presidential contest could hit a record high. We civic-minded Europeans have long been horrified by turnout figures in America, which have historically been only a little over 50 per cent.

Last time, in 1996, turnout fell below that magic figure to 49 per cent. But some psephologists are expecting the figure to rise tomorrow towards 60 per cent. That is still some way below typical figures in the seventies in Britain, but it rather dents the thesis that the majority of Americans are disenfranchised by a system in which they see themselves as powerless.

For the pessimists about the state of democracy in the present era of big money, professionalised campaigns and diluted ideology, the prediction is a surprising one. Especially because the contest between Al Gore and George W Bush has been so lacklustre. But the paradox of this year's campaign has been, for all the sense that the nation regards both candidates with an equal lack of enthusiasm, that the race promises to be the closest since 1960.

Close elections are the key to turnout. There was much handwringing in this country about the decline in turnout from 78 per cent in 1992 to 71 per cent in the 1997 general election. It was said that people, and especially young people, were alienated as never before from politics. The truth is that the figure for 1997 was about the same as in previous elections when the outcome did not seem in doubt (although in 1970 the common expectation was confounded when Ted Heath won). The 1992 figure was about the same as other elections that seemed on a knife-edge (the record turnout on a full franchise was 84 per cent in the close-run 1950 election).

In the US, the Clinton-Dole contest of 1996 was over long before the voters got to the polls.

There are implications here for electoral systems that condemn large sections of the electorate to "safe" states or constituencies. But the real lesson for this country is clear, and it is a lesson that William Hague and Charles Kennedy should consider carefully. It is up to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to make the next election competitive.

Give the electorate a close election, in which their vote might make the difference, and they will turn out.

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