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In a Shaky Election Year, SPA Professor Publishes Bible on Voter Turnout

Gans Book Cover

If voter turnout is one of the vital signs of the health of American democracy, its prognosis in the 2010 mid-term elections is mixed. 

Published in October, Voter Turnout in the United States 1788-2009, edited by Curtis Gans, catalogs historic trends and data on U.S. voter turnout and puts the important midterm election in perspective. For example, the 2010 GOP primary vote exceeded the democratic vote for the first time since 1930 and the average percentage of citizens voting in GOP state primaries was the highest since 1970.

“The big story is the degree to which the Democrats didn’t show up and had their lowest turnout ever in the primaries,” said Gans, who is director and founder of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

Gans, who was recently quoted by the Wall Street Journal, added, “there is no question that the Democratic Party will suffer across the board. It’s just a question of degree.” With the exception of the aberrational and polarizing elections of 2004, 2006, and 2008, the U.S. trend is toward decreased civic participation. Gans noted that “a lot of things have happened in this society over the past decades that have driven people from participating in politics.” He cited:

  • Modern communications and technology that tend to fragment our society
  • Decline in the quality and quantity of civic education
  • Parents who don’t vote or discuss politics with their children
  • Campaigns conducted with attack ads that make everyone feel candidates are a choice between bad and awful
  • Erosion of trust in political leadership

According to Gans, other factors influencing voter turnout this year are, on the Democratic side: many young voters who are disillusioned with President Obama, and the unlikelihood that African American voters will turn out in the record numbers they did in 2008. On the other side, the Tea Party movement has helped mobilize grassroots Republican participation, but Tea Party leaders’ views have led to divisions in the party and made it difficult for moderate Republicans to support Tea Party backed nominees.

“What’s unfortunate is that whether Republicans win very big or just big, we will have a situation where nothing important will get done in Congress for the next two years. The political gridlock of the past two years will only get worse,” predicted Gans.

While his new book teaches us that voter trends are not runaway trains, Gans and colleagues at the Center for the Study of the American Electorate have several projects underway they hope will directly affect electoral reform and reengage Americans in the political process. They include:

  • Civic education programs
  • A study on electoral college reform
  • A bipartisan commission studying the feasibility of a biometric national ID system to help tighten up our voter registration system