Sick of voting?

I have a confession to make: I didn’t vote in the last election. It was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t vote, and I’ve struggled with my decision ever since. Now, thanks to Thomas E. Patterson’s The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, I know why I made it.

Patterson, a scholar at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has written five other books concerning the relationship between politics and media. In The Vanishing Voter, he expands on the topic further, using impressive statistics gathered from decades of voting-trend research, including the controversial 2000 presidential election, to argue that the structure of modern, media-driven campaigns may be the cause of the precipitous decline in voter participation in the United States since 1968.

For instance, in the closely contested 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, voter turnout was 63 percent. It has declined ever since. Close elections are supposed to increase voter participation, but turnout for the 2000 presidential election, which went down to the wire and then some, was just 51 percent. Turnout in midterm contests like the 2002 election in which I didn’t vote has plummeted from 50 percent to 37 percent during the past 40 years.

It’s popular to dismiss non-voting Americans as the ignorant masses, but, as Patterson points out, today’s ignorant masses are more educated than ever; 25 percent have a college degree, yet voter participation is at an all-time low. Instead of locating the cause of the decline within voters themselves, Patterson looks at how the structures of political parties and campaigns have changed since 1960, in an era that coincides with the increase of television news and advertising.

It’s no secret that Americans of all stripes are fed up with politicians and the media. Patterson attributes much of this resentment to a lengthy campaign season that, for presidential elections, has stretched from less than a year to more than two years since the 1960s—in fact, the release of The Vanishing Voter comes with the 2004 presidential contest well under way. Confronted with a long line of candidates who smear opponents and focus on single issues of the moment that have little to do with the average American, voters increasingly have turned away from a process they already find tedious. Political conventions, once dramatic events in which the party faithful had a say, have become non-televised rubber stamps for the winner of the long primary race.

Interestingly, Patterson notes that attempts to decrease voter apathy by easing registration requirements, such as the Motor Voter initiatives passed by some states, have helped increase the number of registered voters but have done little to get them to the polls. Nevertheless, Patterson concludes that a move to same-day registration could go a long way toward increasing voter turnout.

Same-day registration would have been useful in my case; I had moved before the midterm election and was uncertain about the registration requirements. If I could have signed up at the polling booth, I would have voted, maybe. But I’m not sure his conservative approach to the overall problem—shortening the campaign season but keeping the same format—would do much to dispel my apathy or anyone else’s.

In a more radical solution, he suggests that the Electoral College be abandoned in favor of the popular vote in presidential elections. He’ll get no argument from me on that one, but because it isn’t likely to happen in the near future, I’ve found the cure for my own political indifference: Not voting in the last election, neglecting a civic duty instilled in me by my father and his before him, made me sick to my stomach for weeks. I won’t be doing that again soon.