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Published: Wednesday, 1/24/2001

The pull of the polls

For whatever reasons - mediocre candidates, a too-comfortable economy, or just plain old lack of interest - American voters have found powerful incentives to stay away from the polls on Election Day.

Despite a breathtakingly close presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, turnout nationally in the Nov. 7 election amounted to only about 51 percent of the voting-age population. That's the lowest since 1988, when another Bush - George the Elder - was elected, and far below the modern record of 63 percent in the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960.

The disappointing turnout came despite a number of so-called reforms - early voting, no-fault absentee voting, Election-Day registration, and mail voting - intended to broaden electoral participation. A survey by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate notes that participation last year increased overall from the 1996 presidential election, but by less in states which had instituted reforms to make voting easier.

For example, allowing voters to cast absentee ballots without a specific reason is now a feature in 21 states. But while turnout increased on average by 1.5 percent in states with liberal absentee balloting, it rose 2.6 per cent in states without such incentives. The result was similar in the 14 states which, as a convenience, allow voters to cast ballots up to three weeks before Election Day.

Curtis Gans, the group's executive director, says states should redirect their resources from popular but ineffective incentives toward a nationwide voting system using the latest technology. He's right about that.

Americans were startled and horrified to learn from the Florida fiasco that a vote count in a close election may be only an approximation of the actual outcome. If citizens are convinced that their votes will be properly recorded and counted, maybe they'll start showing up to vote in greater numbers.

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