Voter apathy is a lack of interest on the part of individuals in the electoral process generally or in political campaigns during an election period. Apathy is an abstract concept and is therefore difficult to measure. Individual-level measures of voter apathy usually assess the level of interest individuals have in politics, in a contemporary political campaign, or in both. Although findings vary in describing recent trends in voter apathy in the United States, experts agree that voter apathy has increased (while voter turnout has decreased) over the course of the past 100 years. For example, 74 percent of the voting age population in the United States turned out, on average, for presidential elections between 1888 and 1904. Between 1988 and 2004, that number dropped to 52 percent. Voter apathy is a concern in democratic nations because establishing a democracy’s legitimacy requires that citizens consent to the political leaders who make policy, or to policies directly, by participating in elections. Therefore, citizen interest in those who govern and in the options available in the voting booth is a necessary first step in securing the consent of the governed.
Causes of Voter Apathy
To establish a democracy’s legitimate claim to govern, some form of citizen engagement in the political processes is necessary. Fundamentally, citizens’ participation is a civic obligation (i.e., citizens understand that they have a civic responsibility to vote). However, scholars note that in the absence of other forces, civic obligation by itself is not an effective mechanism for drawing citizens into the political process. Factors such as the complexity of politics, the lack of political efficacy on the part of citizens, the increase in negative campaigning, and problems with many popular party systems contribute to high levels of voter apathy in many democracies.
To have an interest in politics (at least one that goes beyond the entertainment value that politics sometimes offers), one must have a feeling of political efficacy; that is, one should believe that he or she understands politics effectively and that government and other political institutions are responsive to citizen demands. Yet many potential voters perceive politics as a complex process that they cannot understand and believe that government officials are not influenced by what individual citizens think. Thus, it is difficult for them to participate in politics and difficult to feel that their participation matters. In turn, they become alienated and decline to be a part of political society.
Some blame negative campaigning in elections for increases in apathy among potential voters. Negative campaigns serve to discourage citizens from feeling positively about any of the candidates from whom they must choose, and they can lead many to conclude that engagement and participation are not worth the effort. Countries with multiparty systems, which provide more options when voting, have decidedly higher citizen participation rates. This suggests that engagement in the election process increases when voters feel that they have a wider variety of options in the voting booth. It thus stands to reason that in a country with a two-party system, voters are likely to feel less enthusiastic about the options they are offered. They are more likely to have the perception that it does not make any difference which one of the two parties is in power. In multiparty systems, voters—offered an array of policy positions—are more likely to find a party with policy positions that more closely match their interests.
Perhaps the most important consequence of voter apathy is nonvoting. In fact, when many people propose reforms to address the problem of voter apathy, they really intend to address the problem of nonvoting. However, nonvoting is not the same thing as voter apathy, because although nonvoting often results from voter apathy, nonvoting can also be the result of other, unrelated factors such as anger with the political system, the failure to find a suitable candidate for whom to vote, or even contentment. Engaged, informed, and politically interested citizens may therefore decide not to vote and hence should not be labeled as “apathetic.”
Of all the causes of nonvoting, however, apathetic nonvoting is perhaps the most troubling form because in most other cases the act of nonvoting is a real statement of a citizen’s preferences. Not voting because there is not a satisfying option on the ballot, for example, is a sensible expression of a citizen’s preferences. Those nonvoters provide interested candidates and political parties with information, and those parties have the incentive to adjust to accommodate those nonvoters’ unmet preferences. Apathetic nonvoters, however, reveal nothing about their preferences, providing no useful information to parties and candidates and therefore are not in a position to react to party proposals and appeals. The difficulty in telling the difference between apathetic nonvoters and other non-voters has led some to advocate the use of a “none of the above” option on ballots. This would give politically interested citizens a way to express their lack of preference for the available options, and it would distinguish that group from the apathetic who do not participate because of a lack of interest.
Apathetic nonvoting does, indeed, have the potential to distort election outcomes. If the apathetic are systematically alike in terms of their (unrealized) candidate or policy preferences, then those preferences find expression in a disproportionately low voter turnout. On the other hand, if the apathetic are diverse enough to not alter the outcomes of elections, then their nonvoting has no impact on election outcomes. Though most commentators are critical of voter apathy, one might argue that voter apathy actually has positive consequences. Apathetic voters are those who do not invest the necessary time and effort to participate meaningfully in the political process. People who do not gather and process the information required to participate meaningfully in politics, some maintain, should disengage from the process and leave decision making to those who do make the effort. The removal of apathetic voters from the elections might, as a result, lead to better collective choices.
Reforms Aimed at Reducing Voter Apathy
Most reforms aimed at nonvoters focus on improving the main symptom of voter apathy: low voter turnout. Many of these reforms seek to make the process of registering to vote and the act of voting itself easier or more convenient. Examples include new “motor voter” procedures, which offer to register citizens to vote when they apply for or renew a driver’s license. Another innovation is early voting, which opens the polls before Election Day, allowing voters to cast a vote several days before the official day. Many of these reforms have been less effective than hoped. For example, voters who registered as part of a motor voter process were unlikely to cast a vote; this reform increased the rolls of registered voters but did not increase engagement or voter turnout on Election Day. Some reformers even proposed a mandatory voting system, which would issue fines to nonvoters, a system currently used with much success in Australia. However, because none of these reforms address the unwillingness to engage in the political process on the part of citizens, they do not address the problem of voter apathy.
Other attempts seek to alter the electoral environment with the goal of drawing in voters who might not otherwise participate. Several media campaigns run by interest groups package political information and advocacy in more exciting or popularly accessible forms (which often have dramatic, eye-catching slogans such as “Rock the Vote” or “Vote or Die”). Another recent attempt to package political information in a more palatable form is the introduction of the “town meeting” debate format in presidential elections. Rather than have candidates address questions formulated and posed by professional journalists, town meeting-style debates involve an audience of citizens asking questions of the candidates directly. The idea is that the questions and questioners will be of more interest to those watching the debate and will increase the level of interest in the debate and the election. Similarly, candidates now regularly appear in less traditional, and more popular, media outlets. Presidential candidates, for example, now typically appear on daytime and night-time talk shows during the course of an election campaign. Presumably this is an attempt to reach an audience that may not follow the normal channels for political information and thus is an attempt to engage difficult-to-reach, apathetic potential voters.
- Bennett, Stephen E. 1986. Apathy in America, 1960-1964: Causes and Consequences of Citizen Political Indifference. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Transnational Publishers.
- Patterson, Thomas E. 2002. The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Knopf.
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