Jewish World Review Nov. 3 2004 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

E. Thomas McClanahan

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Bring back the good ol' days of lazy voters | I hope all the good-government types are pleased.

For decades, we've been hearing about the Declining Health of Our Democracy. Why, did you know we have about the lowest turnout of any developed country? Scandalous!

Tuesday's turnout helped change that impression. But look what we got in the bargain: terrorism and war - and an election in which the fate of the nation seems to hang in the balance.

Personally, I prefer sleepier times. I'd rather the content of politics be about the federal flush-toilet standard or the quota on imports of Mexican bras. When subjects like those rise to the top of the national agenda, it's a sure sign of peace and prosperity.

In such times, politics is less interesting and voter turnout is lower, which is perfectly normal when the ship of state sails on calm seas. Those who moan about turnout have forgotten the injunction about being careful what you wish for. Events likely to call forth a flood-tide of voters are those that threaten our future.

Even so, the low turnout of the last three decades wasn't necessarily a sign of ebbing civic vitality. For Americans, the really profound issues were decided long ago.

Thankfully, we no longer need to debate whether our system should be a republic, a monarchy or something else, or whether people called central planners should decide how much milk and steel Detroit will need for the next five years. We're a democratic republic with a market economy, and that's not likely to change.

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Many voters have felt reasonably secure and content over the last few decades, perhaps because the recessions since the early 1970s have been fairly mild (with the exception of the one ending in 1982). Recessions in the first couple of decades after World War II, by contrast, tended to be sharper.

Voters who opted out of the process saw the benefits of voting as lower than the cost, evidently because the controversies of the moment didn't seem that ominous. Many abstained not because of disgust or cynicism, but because of general satisfaction.

Some argue that turnout has been chronically low because many voters are alienated by massive campaign spending and negative ads.

Not so, says John Samples of the Cato Institute, who reviewed the academic research on these subjects in a recent paper.

Studies cited by Samples found little connection between periods of heavy campaign spending and how much the public trusts government, as measured in surveys by the National Election Studies Center. For the last three decades, campaign spending has increased steadily, but measurements in public trust have gone up and down.

Public trust in government rose in 1980, for example - only a year after creation of the soft-money exception in federal election law. Public trust also rose after 1995, despite the massive soft-money contributions raised by President Clinton.

Rising public trust, Samples noted, is more closely associated with periods when government grabs less of the national income.

As for negative ads, there's substantial evidence they may actually boost turnout.

Negative ads, defined as those critical of an opponent, deliver information useful to voters in an easily accessible format. That reduces the cost to voters of becoming informed about issues and candidates. Informed voters are more likely to vote.

Negative ads also send the message that critical issues are at stake, which helps energize the electorate.

Political scientists found that voter turnout began dropping in the early 1970s, when election campaigns were relatively positive. But in 1992, turnout spiked upward, even though that campaign was considered heavily negative.

"Scholars have not been able to show that negative ads reduce turnout," Samples wrote. "At the same time, several studies have found that critical ads at least do no harm to democracy and may well increase turnout."

But let's all pray that a few years from now, the good-government types can once again dust off their sermons about lazy voters and low turnout. That will be one sign that things are going reasonably well and the threats to our country have receded.

E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services