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The disputed presidential election of 2000 highlighted a range of flaws in the American voting system, from ballot procedures to alleged voter intimidation to questions about the fairness of the Electoral College. But as Harvard University political scientist Thomas E. Patterson shows, one problem dwarfs all of these, a predicament that has been increasing since the 1960s and threatens the very foundations of our democracy: fewer and fewer Americans participate in elections. They are less likely to vote, less likely to contribute money to campaigns, and less likely to talk about candidates. They even are less likely to tune in the televised presidential debates.
In 1960, 63 percent of Americans voted in the presidential election; in 2000, only 51 percent did. In 1996, more Americans abstained than voted. This decline is surprising not only in itself—America, as our politicians never tire of telling us, is a standard-bearer for democracy—but also because it contradicts the received wisdom about voting patterns: the number of college graduates has risen, racial bars to voting have fallen, and registration laws have been simplified. Yet, even as the United States has made balloting easier and has produced more citizens who, judged by their educational achievements, should vote, the percentage of voters has decreased.
Patterson, whose landmark study Out of Order examined the effects of media saturation on the democratic process, takes a clear-eyed look at this situation. Based on more than 80,000 interviews conducted during the 2000 presidential campaign, The Vanishing Voter reveals the political sources of voter discontent. Patterson explains the parts that changes in partisan politics, media coverage, candidate strategy, and electoral reform have played in discouraging voters from going to the polls. And he suggests specific remedies for repairing the process.
Thoughtful and timely, The Vanishing Voter contains a crucial message for all who care about democracy.
“A refreshing book. . . . Exceedingly thorough. . . . Patterson puts forth a cogent, well-documented case.” —The New York Times
“A wise and skeptical account of the contemporary electorate.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Engaging. . . . Provocative . . . required reading for the public-policy—minded.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Thought-provoking.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Valuable. . . . Patterson’s clearly written book offers a menu of sound . . . measures to help solve these problems.” —Columbia Journalism Review
“Well-reasoned. . . . Offering pragmatic reforms, Patterson’s descriptions and prescriptions merit mulling by politically minded readers.” —Booklist
“Patterson’s book . . . isn’t just another tired lament about the lameness of the political process. It’s an extension of the Vanishing Voter Project, designed to discover ‘what draws people to a campaign and what keeps them away.’ ” —The Washington Monthly
“Outstanding. . . . A well-documented project that leads the reader through what works and what fails in our system, and how we can continue our representative republic and make it more responsive to the wishes of the electorate in the future.” —The Decatur Daily