August 20, 1996 in Nation/World

No Show ‘96: Americans Who Don’t Vote Could Nonvoters Change Results? Some Experts Say No Nonvoter Shave Very Similar Views To Voters

Mary Dittrich Medill News Service Nanci Kulig And Kelly Mcever
 

If the horde of people who don’t vote go to the polls this Nov. 5, it might not make much difference.

Nonvoters and voters appear to hold very similar views on pressing national issues, a recent scientific survey reveals.

But because nonvoters tend to be poor, young and less educated, experts disagree whether their participation in elections matters.

An additional 85 million votes would not have changed the 1992 presidential election, said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based political think tank.

“If everyone voted, it would not have altered the outcome of past elections,” Mann said. “If you look at the preferences, for presidential candidates among voters and nonvoters, typically there is very little difference.”

Some experts, however, contend nonvoters have very different attitudes and cannot be dismissed.

“There is a distinct difference between voters and nonvoters - mainly education, age and income - and voters have a distinct advantage in getting their views represented,” said Tony Stewart, a political scientist at North Idaho College.

A telephone survey of 1,001 likely nonvoters conducted by the Medill News Service for The Spokesman-Review shows that crime, unemployment, and the economy are among the top concerns of nonvoters. A recent poll by The New York Times found that the overall population’s concerns are identical.

The two groups shared other concerns. Roughly three-quarters of registered voters and nonvoters said a woman’s right to an abortion should be preserved and there should be a limit on the number of terms served in Congress. Slightly more than three-quarters of both groups agreed government should play an active role in improving health care, housing and education for middle-income families.

Even though nonvoters and voters appear to share the same views, Frances Fox Piven argued the poor and young will suffer if they stay away from the polls.

“Non-voting gave us the government we have had for the last two years,” said Piven, the author of Why Americans Don’t Vote. “What we really have to worry about is a political system that ignores the concerns of the nonvoter.”

Brett Bader, a Seattle-based political consultant, said he designs campaigns specifically targeted toward voters, and essentially dismisses the large percentage of people he knows will not vote.

“It’s very important to talk to mainly those people who you know are going to be at the polls,” he said.

Campaigns that target nonvoters rarely succeed, Mann said.

“Over the last couple of decades, we’ve heard countless candidates who’ve said that they’re going to mobilize the nonvoters and that way revolutionize American politics,” Mann said. “Don’t bet on it.”

Although conventional wisdom says that getting nonvoters to the polls benefits Democrats, the Medill survey suggests that may not be the case. Nearly half the nonvoters in the survey labeled themselves independents, while 24 called themselves Democrats and 17 percent Republicans.

While the nation spends millions on such programs as motor-voter and mail-in registration, candidates are spending millions on attack ads that often drive people away from the polls.

The fact that nonvoters tend to be younger has some experts concerned. No one knows whether they will start voting as they age.

Mann said people usually are more likely to vote after they marry, have children, own a house and forge connections to their community. But he worries today’s young people will “develop the habit of nonvoting” and won’t change.

Stewart contended that current turnouts of 50 percent are dangerously low. A democratic republic can’t function with half of its people unrepresented.

But Mann does not believe turnout accurately reflects a democracy’s health.

It is more important to have true competition for public offices and major currents of public opinion reflected in campaigns, he said.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Mary Dittrich Medill News Service Nanci Kulig and Kelly McEvers contributed to this report.

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