Published December 1980 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd Staying On the Sidelines It is a sad commentary on America that only 53 percent of the people eligible to vote in the 1980 presidential election bothered to cast ballots. And what is worse is that this figure continues a trend of a steady decline in voter turnout in presidential election years over the past 20 years. The highest turnout in recent decades was 64 percent in 1952, but the record high for the 20th century occurred in 1900 when 74 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls. And the turnout for Congressional, state, and local elections in off years routinely is less than in presidential elections. Unfortunately, the voter turnout in the United States is below that of most other representative democracies. Far too many Americans "sit out" election day, preferring to stay on the sidelines as if elections were a spectator sport. One political scientist, Clinton Rossiter, believes low voter turnout is due, partially, to Americans' confidence that another election will take place in four more years, giving them another opportunity to voice their preferences. Rossiter says, "When ballots become bullets, Americans will be found casting them as willingly as any other people." Unfortunately, however, there is a danger in the current trend of diminishing voter turnout. Our elected officials are being elected by less and less of the electorate. President-elect Reagan, for example, was chosen by 51 percent of the 53 percent of the eligible voters who voted, in other words, by 'barely more than one-fourth of the nation's eligible voters. This trend of diminishing turnout could lead to a government that is less responsive to the whole citizenry, and more responsive to the single-issue and special-interest groups that do mobilize voters and show an interest in the political machinery. We should take note of the message given by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, "It is not the qualified voters, but the qualified voters who choose to vote, that constitute the political power of the state."