Chat: Voter Turnout Expert Curtis Gans

With the presidential race tighter than at any time in a generation, turnout could be the crucial factor in determining who wins. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, joined an online Election Night discussion on voter turnout. Look below for a transcript of the chat.

Moderator

Curtis Gans, an expert on voter participation and turnout now joins our live discussion. Gans is director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Thanks for joining us.

Moderator

Do you expect turnout to be higher today than in recent elections because the presidential race is so close?

Curtis Gans

The way I want to answer that question is -- because I really do wait until the numbers come in and don't look at early polls -- if turnout is up, why is it up? First, I think all those polls that people hate make them feel the election was very close, and that their vote did make a difference. Secondly, I think because of that, undecided voters unenamoured of either candidate, decided not to stay home, but to make their choice. Third is an historic perspective, namely that during 40 years of declining participation, there have been individual elections in which we have had substantial rises in turnout and they all had one thing in common-- Jane Byrne vs Michael Bilandic in Chicago, and the races that involved Washington Dinkins and Stokes, the genteel Sandford when David Duke ran-- people felt there was something important to decide. At the end of this campaign, despite indications of disinterest, people decided there was something important to decide. We won't know quite what that decision was until the results are in.

Moderator

Are any particular issues that have motivated voters in this election?

Curtis Gans

I think it really depends on the person and the place. Bush supporters are essentially voting character, his basic theme of ending gridlock, and confidence in leadership and a conservative view of government. Gore's pitch appealed to minorities and union members. But people make decisions on complex motivations, and I don't think you could pick one determining issue in this election. There were negatives, like the Vice President's authenticity, but with the exit polls, I don't think we'll know what issue drove people to what vote.

Moderator Which groups did each candidate need to win over?

Curtis Gans

The group that both candidates fought hardest for was the elderly. The aim of both candidates was to maximize their base votes-- Christian and secular conservatives, small businessmen, farmers, and Big Business on the Republican side. African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, labor unions, and environmentalists on the Democratic side. And gun-owners on the Republican side as well!

Steven asks:

Why hasn't the Electoral College converted to a percentage basis so that the electoral vote is more representative of the popular vote? It makes more sense that if a candidate wins 60% of the popular vote in a particular state, he should get 60% of the electoral votes.

Curtis Gans

That's one of two solutions that I favor-- either that, or the solution that's in place in Maine and Nebraska where, if you win the state, you win all the electoral votes, but you have to win the others by Congressional district. I agree that both of those systems would be better than the current system and better than direct election, but if I had to choose between the current and direct election, I'd take the current system. You'd need a Congressional amendment to make any changes, which requires two-thirds of the Congress, and that's a hard thing to get done.

James asks:

Historically does a large turnout favor Republicans or Democrats?

Curtis Gans

Historically, before 1960, it favors Democrats. After 1960, there are a number of studies showing that the size of the turnout benefits neither party. If we went over 60-percent turnout, the Democrats might have an advantage. But now, we get increasingly more information about candidates through television, and the parties don't have a sustained grassroots basis. So Republicans can win high-turnout elections, and Democrats can win low-turnout elections.

Diogenes asks: Mr. Gans, do you perceive a difference in the quality of decisions subject to voting in the U.S. compared to countries with compulsory voting, e.g., Australia?

Curtis Gans

I do not believe in compulsory voting. I believe the right to vote involves the right to abstain. We could have compulsory voting and an artificially high turnout, but that would wipe American democracy out. It is true that one thing happens when we get low turnouts, which is the debate gets skewed to the people who vote heavily. It is no accident that we have debates about Medicare and prescription drug benefits, but we don't talk about income, affordable housing, or transportation because the votes are with the elderly, and there aren't a lot of votes with the others.

V-Man asks:

What happens if Bush gets the popular, and Gore gets the electoral?

Curtis Gans

Gore becomes President, people scream, there will be extensive Congressional hearings, probably a Constitutional amendment, and depending on what the amendment is, I'll support it or not. Even [for] proportional representation, as in Maine, I will cheer, raise money, and get on the bandwagon.

Lisa asks:

In your opinion, what factors determine a strong voter turnout? Is it controversial issues, charismatic candidates? And why is this election more dependent on voter turnout?

Curtis Gans

I don't think this election is dependent on voter turnout, it depends on who turns out, whichever side wins. It's not the election. People vote for a variety of reasons-- identification with the person, with the issues. We used to vote out of "civic duty," and that has been largely eroded over the last 40 years. So now we vote, perhaps in this election, because we can make a difference. In 1994, it was because we didn't like things the President had done. Another good turnout, in 1992, was because the President promised to do something about taxes. But we have to deal with what has eroded our civic duty, and we haven't made much progress in addressing that.

Moderator

What do you think parties and candidates can do to rekindle people's interest in politics?

Curtis Gans

We can have parties that are not quite as skewed as they have been, i.e., the Republicans are way to the right, and the Democrats have aimed their arrows at the middle class but we've left out a lot of people at the bottom of the income scale. We need to rebuild some grassroots, continuing grassroots organizations in both parties. We need to find a way to have less reliance on television advertising, and the parties ought to commit to programs of civic education in the schools, getting the media to do a better job of coverage, including major networks, and network affiliates who are abdicating their role in the coverage of politics.

Frank asks:

Hey Curtis -- what do you think of the industry-wide policy of the news media (except Matt Drudge) to suppress exit polling data until the polls close?

Curtis Gans

I wish it went further, which is to say I wish the networks would not use their exit polls to project winners until all the polls close. They just projected Indiana and Kentucky while people are still voting in the West, and I think that's an abomination and ought to be outlawed.

Moderator

Do you foresee any changes in the Electoral College any time soon?

Curtis Gans

Absolutely not, if we don't have a popular winner and an Electoral College winner that are different. That's the only thing that will seriously raise the question in the United States of sufficient force to create a Constitutional Amendment.

Moderator

Curtis, thanks for your time.