Why Americans Don’t Vote

  • Teixeira, Ruy A.
  • Why Americans Don’t Vote: Turnout Decline in the United States 1960-1984.
  • First ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Inc, 1987. .

Research Question and Methods to Examine the Question:

Mr. Tiexeira’s research question: Known factors that increase voter turnout, such as socioeconomic and educational attainment, increased in the American society from 1960-1984, so what caused voter turnout decline? He attempted to engage a comprehensive study that would statistically explain voter decline, which included the following categories: education, age, marital status, residential mobility, occupation, family income (poor or non-poor), sex, race (white or non-white), region (south or non-south), partisanship, political efficacy, and most importantly, campaign newspaper reading.

The author endeavored to solve the “puzzle of participation” (3). Mr. Tiexeira used independent, dependent and “dummy” variables through multi-faceted research methods, which included: ordinary least squares, probit and regression analysis. His data originated from the American National Election Studies (ANES). The types of statistics generated are illuminated in Table 1.1 (see the book) and Table 6.1 (see the book).

Substantive Findings: American Politics and Political Representation:

During the period of 1960 to 1984, educational attainment, income and occupations in America advanced among the American constituents and therefore should have demonstrated an increase of voter turnout. Yet, trends that depressed voter turnout can be illuminated statistically via new young voters joining the electorate and then not voting, an increase of single families, and an increase of residential mobility (lack of rootedness). The latter thus cancels out would be gains of the former. Now at a zero gain or loss regarding voter turnout, he argued that America’s decline of voter turnout was due to a measurable decline of political efficacy (constituents’ belief that their vote matters), a decline of partisanship (constituents identifying with one party), and most importantly, a decline in newspaper reading (which he calls “campaign involvement,”108). According to the author, “The decline in newspaper reading alone can be held responsible for almost two-thirds of net turnout decline…” (88).

Mr. Teixeira does statistically show that there are more available non-voters among the poor, but discourages activists to seek new voters among the poor instead of the non-poor. He writes, “An elementary measure of disproportionality, for instance (ratio of proportion of nonvoting population in a given category to proportion of overall population in that category), for 1960 and 1980, reveals relatively little change over time…” (108). He also discounts the stereotype that poor nonvoters would be Democrats and rich non-voters would be Republicans. He explains, “nonvoters are spread across demographic and partisan categories… these potential voters are no longer seen as naturally belonging to the Democrats or the left….” (111).

Briefly, Mr. Teixeira explores two methods to increase voter turnout. First, he would revert back to the “system of the 1950s” (113), which means, “…following the campaign in the mass media (newspapers)…strong, long-term commitments to one of the major political parties… (and) felt… relatively efficacious (my vote mattered)” (12-13). However, in the next sentence, he retreated and suggested “a new individually orientated system of electoral participation that, although structured differently from the system of the 1950s, works as well in promoting turnout” (114). Later he demurs, “the system of the 1950’s is not being re-created… (it might) simply not work under contemporary conditions” (122).

His second method to increase voter turnout recommended a European collective approach, whereas the state and political parties would register and transport voters to the appropriate polls. He submitted that the former is more likely to occur (which he later said was unlikely). However, he concludes the book with a recommendation for this second “collective orientation approach,” which would probably reveal “fewer turnout puzzles to solve in the future but more voters in the voting booth” (126). This method, again, mandates that the state and political parties become responsible to get out the vote.

Additional interpretation of possible future voter turnout stemmed from political realignments of the American constituents. These realignments, according to the author, occur every twenty-eight to thirty-six years and last occurred in 1932. This realignment is a strong shift in voter patterns, whereas “one-fifth to one-third of the electorate shift partisan allegiance” (123). Once the realignment occurs, the political landscape and meaning of political issues is born anew. The old political platforms vanish. Thus, American politics is still “bound up with the decaying political definitions…” (124).

Shortcomings and Possible Solutions:

Dr. Tiexeira  promotes an idea (returning to the 1950s) that he later statistically shows is not happening and then suggests is not very possible. The solution would be to actually think of new methodology that has not occurred and has not yet been tested. Teixeira expounds copious amounts of criticism for previous studies that did not account for all of his variables, especially newspaper reading. It was refreshing to read such a comprehensive analysis regarding the possible reasons for voter turnout decline from 1960 to 1984; however, his apparent overconfidence in the totality of his variables was disheartening, particularly when he contradicted his own findings.

For example, the author examines “newspaper reading” as an extremely important variable throughout the book and every reader would assume its paramount impact on (not) voting. Yet, in the end, he wrote, “This suggests that campaign newspaper reading cannot be reduced to the expectation of voting, and, certainly, that the decline in the levels of newspaper reading has significance independent from the trends in voting expectation” (101).[1] So, reduced efficacy may reduce voting, and perhaps declining newspaper reading is a real example; even though it is only one of many… To be sure, Teixeira provided no pragmatic solutions to increase political efficacy or proficiency. Campaign involvement, which includes, but is not limited to: literature distribution, organizing or attending a political campaign event, creating or joining a (re)election committee, volunteering for a campaign and perhaps even donating egregious amounts of money for negative advertising, is also an indicator of efficacy.

Overall, this dated (from another generation) examination of voter decline was a sincere attempt to explain the “puzzle of participation” and should be revisited with additional variables and renewed interest by political scientists. The variables in this study; such as poor and non-poor, white and not-white, and south and non-south truly seem from another era–like the antebellum era. Indeed, Ideology and Spatial Voting in American Elections is a good step forward.


[1] I added italics on “independent.”

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One thought on “Why Americans Don’t Vote

  1. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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