Citizens

Are You a Student? Even You Can Make a Difference!

Elizabeth Dole is an alumna of the Delta Delta Delta women's fraternity. During her 2000 presidential bid, that history paid off for her at the 1999 Iowa straw poll. The New York Times reported that "Aides and volunteers estimate that get-out-the-vote operations spearheaded by Tri Delta sisters brought out more than 600 voters on Saturday, a healthy share of Mrs. Dole's 3,140-vote total." Campaign officials indicated "the campaign would be using a national network of Tri Delta members to build support for [the following] year's Republican primaries."1 While Mrs. Dole did not win the nomination, her ability to mobilize college students gave her campaign an early boost. Think you can't make a difference? Think again!

The Importance of Participation in Civic Life

The American political system affords citizens a wide range of opportunities to participate in and influence the political process. Through voting, writing letters, contributing to campaigns and even running for office, ordinary people can shape public policy.

Modes of Participation

Unlike the citizens of many countries, Americans have a seemingly endless number of opportunities to participate in the political process. Through a variety of activities, they can express their views and otherwise influence politicians and other government officials. Chief among these is the right of all citizens over the age of eighteen to vote. Eligible voters have a voice in choosing literally thousands of local, state and national leaders.

In addition to voting, people are free (within legally established limits) to contribute money to political campaigns, work as volunteers for political candidate's, circulate petitions, communicate with elected officials in person or in writing, stage and participate in protests, and exert influence on the political system in dozens of other ways.

One of the most important tools a citizen must have to participate effectively is accurate and timely information. Acquiring such information is easier today than it has ever been. Vast amounts of information about the government and politicians are available with a few mouse clicks. E-mail has also made contacting political leaders inexpensive and less time consuming. Not only are politicians, government agencies, interest groups and political parties able to use web sites to disseminate information, but average people have the ability to do the same. Today, private citizens, without ever leaving their homes, can communicate with a wider audience of their fellow citizens than anyone would have dreamed possible just a few years ago.

Who Participates?

While every eligible voter has the right to vote and participate in other ways in the political process, not everyone chooses to do so. In fact, local elections rarely draw more than 20% of eligible voters to the ballot box.

What kinds of people are more likely to participate in politics? In general, more educated, more affluent citizens participate more than others. Older voters are also more likely to vote than younger voters. For a variety of socioeconomic factors, whites are also more likely to participate than blacks and Hispanics. The table below summarizes voter registration and actual voting age, sex and racial groups in the 1998 Congressional elections. Notice the men and women are about equally likely to vote, but there are differences across age and racial groups. On additional noteworthy point about turnout rates is that a voter must be registered to vote before he or she can turnout. Efforts to increase turnout, then, must begin with efforts to register more voters.

Voter Turnout by Voter Group 2004

Voting Age Population

Percent Registered

Number Voted

Percent Voted

Percent of
Total U.S. Vote

2004 U.S. Totals

215,694,000

65.9
125,736,000

58.3

100

AGE

18-24

27,808,000

57.6
11,639,000
41.9
9.2
25-44
82,133,000
66.0
42,845,000
52.2
34.2

45-54

71,014,000

72.1
47,327,000
66.6
37.6
65-74
18,363,000
79.3
13,010,000
70.8

10.4

75 and over

16,375,000

79.0
10,915,000
66.7
8.6

SEX

Male

103,812,000

70.5
58,455,000
62.1
46.5

Female

111,882,000

73.6
67,281,000
65.4
53.5

RACE

White

151,410,000

75.1
99,567,000
67.2
79.2

Black

24,910,000

68.7
14,016,000
60.0
11.1

Hispanic

27,129,000

57.9
7,587,000
47.2
6.0

Asian

9,291,000

51.8
2,768,000
44.1
2.2


Why don't we participate more?

Political participation in the United States is something of a paradox. In spite of the numerous opportunities to participate, only a select few take advantage of a significant number of these opportunities. Why do some people choose to sit and watch (or simply ignore) politics from the sidelines? When asked about their political activities, people who do not participate offer a variety of explanations. Reasons for not voting or participating more fully in the political process include:

Lack of time
Lack of information
Belief that voting / participation won't make a difference
Professed dislike of all candidates / politicians
Satisfaction with the way things are going

Those who do take the time to participate wind up having a proportionately greater political influence, because when people vote, campaign, attend town hall meetings, write letters or make phone calls, their voices are heard. The decisions made by politicians and other participants in the political process are not made in a vacuum. When citizens participate, they influence the decisions that are made. While political leaders often speak of following the "voice of the people," the reality is that they are influenced by the voices of the few people who choose to participate.


NOTES
1. James Dao, "In Straw Poll, Dole Got Help From Her 'Sisters,'" The New York Times, 18 August 1999. Web Edition-Politics/Campaigns.