Political Participation and Voting: Expressing the Popular Will
Chapter Outline I. Voter Participation A. Factors in Voter Turnout: The United States in Comparative Perspective 1. Registration Requirements 2. Frequency of Elections 3. Party Differences B. Why Some Americans Vote and Others Do Not 1. Civic Attitudes 2. Age 3. Education and Income C. The Impact of the Vote II. Conventional Forms of Participation Other Than Voting A. Campaign & Lobbying Activities B. Virtual Participation C. Community Activities III. Unconventional Activism: Social Movements and Protest Politics IV. Participation and the Potential for Influence
Political participation is involvement in activities designed to influence public policy and leadership. A main issue of democratic government is the question of who participates in politics and how fully they participate.
Voting is the most widespread form of political participation among Americans. Voter turnout in the United States, however, is lower than in most other democratic nations. The requirement that Americans must personally register in order to establish their eligibility is one reason for lower turnout among Americans; other democracies place the burden of registration on governmental officials rather than the individual citizen. The fact that the United States holds frequent elections also discourages some citizens from voting regularly. Finally, the two major political parties in the United States, unlike many of those in Europe, do not clearly represent the interests of opposing economic classes; thus the policy stakes in American elections are correspondingly reduced. Some Americans do not vote because they think that policy will not change greatly regardless of which party gains power.
Only a minority of citizens engage in the more demanding forms of political activity, such as working on behalf of a candidate during a political campaign. The proportion of Americans who engage in these demanding forms of activity, though small, exceeds the proportion of Europeans who do so. Most political activists are individuals of higher income and education; they have the skills and material resources to participate effectively and tend to have a greater interest in politics. More than in any other Western democracy, political participation in the United States is related to economic status.
Social movements are broad efforts to achieve change by citizens who feel that government is not properly responsive to their interests. These efforts sometimes take place outside established channels; demonstrations, picket lines, and marches are common means of protest. Protesters are younger and more idealistic on average than other citizens, but they are a very small proportion of the population. In addition, protest activities do not have much public support, despite the country’s historical tradition of free expression.
Americans are only moderately involved in politics. They are concerned with political affairs but immersed in their private pursuits, a reflection in part of the nation’s emphasis on individualism. The lower level of participation among low income citizens has particular significance in that it works to reduce their influence on public policy and leadership. The main points of this chapter are as follows:
• Voter turnout in U.S. elections is low in comparison with that of other democratic nations. The reasons for this difference include the nature of U.S. election laws, particularly those pertaining to registration requirements and the scheduling of elections.
• Most citizens do not participate actively in politics in ways