RECENT NUMBERS from polling stations have offered some hope that the trend of decreasing voter turnout will reverse itself. About 600,000 people turned out for the South Carolina primary Saturday, more than double the number who voted in 1996. Some have taken it as a sign of better things to come in terms of Americans' political activism. This response, however, is too hopeful. America's political apathy will not likely be ended in the near future.
Despite the high turnout, the results from South Carolina are troubling because they indicate that only 20 percent of the voting-age population went to the polls. Given the contentious nature of the race there, one might expect that the turnout would have been much higher. In a Republican-dominated state, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that at least a majority of voters would turn out to help decide the winner.
Of course, there were complicating factors in South Carolina. Some polling stations, notably those in areas populated predominantly by blacks, were closed, or moved to consolidated sites. Since the state does not control the primaries, keeping polling stations open was the responsibility of the party. On Saturday, however, only 1,429 polling stations were open out of 1,752. Nonetheless, that was still double the number open in the 1996 primary. So the turnout ought to have been better.
The downward trend in electoral participation almost certainly reflects cynicism about the political situation in America. Apathy generally arises when those who would act feel that their actions would have no effect, or when they don't care about the results of a race.
While some people simply may not care about how their government treats them, this seems unlikely to be generally true. A majority of people probably do care about the fate of their nation to some extent, at least as it pertains to their own personal destinies. The source of voter apathy therefore most likely lies in a feeling of general impotence.
Take as an illumination of this point the recent elections in Iran. Despite the peculiarities of the electoral process there -- campaigning lasts only about a week and consists largely of face-to-face work instead of advertisements -- turnout was amazingly high. Of 38.7 million eligible voters, 32 million -- 83 percent -- made their voices heard.
The turnout was driven mainly by younger people, who took this opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the hard-line Islamic government. As a result, reformers supporting Iranian President Mohammad Khatami took the day. In this case, the electorate turned out in droves because the voters felt they held their future in their hands, and that the result of the election mattered.
In the case of the most recent primary, South Carolinians had an opportunity to choose between two candidates who had attempted to substantially distance themselves from each other. This explained why more people voted than in the past. But the key to understanding why the turnout remained low lies in the candidates' inability to effectively create that separation. Whatever else can be said, McCain and Bush are still Republicans dominated by the party line. Unless they can escape the constricted horizon dictated by party ties, their campaigns will eerily resemble the stereotypical knife fight in which the combatants have their hands tied together.
The problem crosses party lines, however. Turnout is low in all elections, not just primaries, because the political parties involved try to speak to too broad a segment of the population. Republicans attempt to at once appeal to the far right and the conservative center. Democrats face a similar problem on the left. Ultimately, to maximize their votes, both parties attempt to chase the most innocuous, moderate positions, and the lines blur. As a result, the candidates from opposing parties seem so similar that voters feel no compulsion to choose.
Additionally, the broad-band approach decreases the relevancy of the parties. Most people can't find a party ideology that fits a majority -- or even a large portion -- of their beliefs. Those who favor a strong military, for example, usually would have to vote Republican, whether they agreed with further parts of that ideology or not. Faced with the reality that no candidate will adequately represent them, many people simply decline to vote.
Many politicians have suggested solutions for the problem of low voter turnout, most of them centered on increasing registration and getting younger voters to the polls. The problem will not be solved, however, unless the number and responsiveness of political parties increases.