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WHILE Republicans and Democrats vie mightily for votes and spend millions to get them, the "stay-at-home" party has quietly captured a clear majority of the eligible voters across the country. The stay-at-home party has been especially successful in Illinois in recent years. And as the number of voter dropouts increases, the legitimacy of what was once a viable two-party political system is being seriously threatened. This situation -- some would call it a crisis -- is widely noted, but little understood.

Recent studies of voter turnout document the significant decline in voter participation in local, statewide and national elections. But the success of the stay-at-home party is not easy to explain, although voter cynicism obviously contributes to it. What has been overlooked as a factor, however, is the weakening of traditional party allegiances, a relatively recent development. Parties are losing their clout, and this loss has significantly affected voter turnout and election results.

The decline

The bald fact is that two out of three citizens of voting age in the U.S. population declined to vote in 1978. This marked the third consecutive off-year election which showed a reduction in participation, while 1976 marked the fourth straight presidential election in which turnout declined.

A closer look at the decline shows the epidemic nature of nonparticipation by American citizens. As figure 1 makes clear, voter participation has declined nationally; the rate of decline in Illinois has been even sharper over the past 18 years. In 1960, Illinois' turnout of voting age population was a lofty 13 percent above the national average. By 1976, that margin was reduced by half, to only 7 percent. And the figures on turnout in congressional, off-year elections, are even more dramatic. In these races, the drop-off was a catastrophic 22 percent from 1962 to 1974, or twice the national average. (The data for 1962 and 1966 are not given in figure 1). The plunge was 14 percent from 1970 to 1974.

Tables 1, 2, 3

Although Illinois led the nation in retreat from the polls from 1966 to 1974, the falling turnout here is paralleled in other large industrial northern states, as suggested by the examples of New York and California. Consequently, explanations for the slide in voting participation in Illinois may apply to a great extent to other states as well. It should also be noted that the small increase in turnout in Illinois in 1978 -- about 38 percent of the voting age population cast ballots for U.S. congressmen -- cannot be fairly compared to previous off years because 1978 was the first off-year gubernatorial election in the state.

The decline in voter participation has been fairly uniform throughout Illinois, as an examination of the turnout of registered voters reveals. Table 1 documents the fact that turnouts in Chicago, in suburban Cook County and down-state have declined by 12, 13 and 10 percent, respectively, in presidential elections from 1960 to 1976; the total statewide decline was 12 percent. The decline from the 1970 to the 1974 off-year election is even more dramatic, amounting to 22 percent in Chicago, 21 percent in Cook County and 14 percent downstate.

In addition to this general decline in statewide participation, there is another significant trend in recent elections concerning participation in the Republican "collar counties." Voter participation there has previously been the highest in the state, but it has declined more dramatically than in the remaining down-state counties (on the importance of this division of "downstate" see Colby and Green, April 1978 Illinois Issues, pages 16-21). Between 1968 and 1976, for example, the turnout of registered voters in the collar counties (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will) declined by 13 percent (from 87 to 74 percent), while the decline in the 96 down-state counties was only 7 percent (from 79 to 72 percent).

Comparing the off-year elections of 1970 and 1974, the pattern was equally emphatic (see table 2). Participation by registered voters declined by 22 percent in Chicago (from 73 to 51 percent) and by 21 percent in the rest of Cook County

June 1979 / Illinois Issues / 4

(from 73 to 52 percent) and the five collar counties (from 68 to 47 percent), while the decline in the 96 downstate counties was only 12 percent (from 67 to 55 percent).

The 1978 elections marked some changes in the pattern, showing that the turnout in the 96 downstate counties declined from 55 percent (1974) to 53 percent (1978), while the collar county vote increased by 8 percent (from 47 to 55 percent). But even that rebound by the collar counties has not returned them to the previous levels of participation. The turnout there in 1970, without a gubernatorial race, was 68 percent, or 13 percent higher than in 1978. In Chicago and the rest of Cook County there was also an upswing in the 1978 election. Though Chicago rebounded to 65 percent, there had been a 10 percent decline in voter registration.

In short, the Illinois stay-at-home party has grown steadily in strength, and to the degree that Illinois is typical, we can assume similar patterns of nonparticipation across the nation.

Figure 1


Since voting is a two-step process in the U.S., first requiring registration and then actual voting, the registration process might be a factor in declining voter turnout. The paradox here is that registration has dropped in recent years, although registration rules have been greatly liberalized in most parts of the country. In Illinois, the decline in registrations has been slow but steady since 1960, as table 3 suggests. The 5 percent decline in registration cannot begin to account for the 15 percent drop in voter participation documented in figure 1. Further proof of the relatively slight effect of declining registration on turnout is revealed in table 4 which shows the raw numbers of registered voters in Chicago, the rest of Cook County and downstate. (Accurate estimates of voting age population are not available for Chicago for 1976.) While the percentage of registered voters has declined, the number of registered voters has increased statewide.

Several other points must be made about these figures. The first is that the total eligible electorate was expanded after 1970 as a result of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Consequently, the increase in the sheer numbers of eligible and registered voters (in Cook County and downstate) is not solely due to population increase. In fact, some part of the slippage of registered voters in Chicago is due to population loss. From 1960 to 1975, the city lost 8 percent of its total population, according to U.S. census figures. Thus, despite an increase in the total eligible population (because of the lowered voting age), the number of registered voters in the city declined at about twice the rate of population loss, although Cook County and the rest of the state more than compensated for that decline.

Finally, the percentage of blacks in the city's population increased from 23 to 33 percent from 1960 to 1970. Given black-white differences in both registration and turnout, these population changes were bound to lower both total registration and turnout in the city. The lower registration and participation rates of blacks reflect differences in education, income and status. As noted above, registration decline cannot account for the turnout decline in Cook or downstate, although it appears to explain some of the decline in the city.

It is important to note that national turnout decline has occurred despite several factors which should have increased turnout. For example, income and educational levels have risen dramatically since 1960, and such changes characteristically lead to greater voter participation. Yet more and more better educated and more affluent citizens, it seems, are defying sociology and joining the stay-at-home party. One population related change -- the expansion of the franchise to 18-year-olds -- might be thought of as useful for explaining the drop in participation. But while the rates of participation of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are substantially lower than for the rest of the population, this change accounts for only a fraction of the falloff nationally and in Illinois.

Also related to the decline in voting is the increasing number of citizens who have lost confidence in our politicians and political institutions. Cynicism breeds apathy and, as table 5 suggests, cynicism is growing dramatically in American voters. The public's lack of confidence in the effectiveness of government has been reinforced by political scandal. The two great shocks to the national political system were Vietnam and Watergate. In addition, racial turmoil, the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew, the pardon of Richard M. Nixon, the economic problems of 1973-1974 and continuing inflation have all contributed to the electorate's sense of futility. Illinois, of course, shared in

June 1979 / Illinois Issues / 5

these national traumas, and in the 1970-1974 period (when decline was sharpest in Illinois), the state experienced its own shocks: the Paul Powell shoe box affair, the indictment and conviction of former Gov. Otto Kerner, the indictment and conviction of numerous associates of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Added to the national scandals, these Illinois scandals may have helped convince the Illinois electorate that voting is meaningless.

The decline of parties, organizationally and in the electorate, is also a cause of reduced voter participation. Parties are expected to attract (and even transport) voters to the polls. But it's not working that way anymore. There is considerable evidence of party decline in Illinois, including a major upswing in ticket splitting in the state. (Figure 2 traces the sharp increase in ticket splitting in Illinois from 1960 to 1978.) There is a direct link between party decline and declining party competition (as measured by the closeness of elections) in Illinois because weaker party identification opens the door to personality contests and landslide victories.

Traditionally, cliff-hanger elections have improved voter turnout because competition increases interest; people feel that their votes are important. Figure 3 shows that the average winning margin in statewide elections in the 1970's has increased significantly. At the same time turnout has decreased significantly. The increasing number of landslides may indicate that the hold of parties on the electorate is slipping. The trend is clearly visible statewide.

Figure 2

Figure 3 also plots the turnout decline in Chicago, Cook County and down-state against increases in the average winning margins for statewide offices in those three areas for 1960, 1968 and 1976. In most instances, a drop in turnout is matched by an increase in the margin of victory, although the figures are somewhat different in different parts of the state. In terms of competition, downstate was and is the most competitive area. Chicago was and is the least competitive area. In fact, the relationship between competition and turnoutis weakest in the city of Chicago --turnout has decreased 12 percent while elections have become only marginally less competitive. It is likely that population changes in Chicago account more for turnout decline than decreasing competition. In contrast, the rest of Cook County and the rest of the state have both experienced a sharp rise in the

Figure 3

June 1979 / Illinois Issues / 6

average winning percentage and a major decline in turnout. From 1960 to 1968, there was little decrease in competition, although there was some turnout decline. Then, from 1968 to 1976 a major drop in competition was accompanied by a further decline in turnout.

These data, however, do not necessarily demonstrate a simple causal relationship between a decline in competition and voter apathy in Illinois. It may be that lower turnouts tend to inflate winning margins. More depressing is the possibility that lack of competition depresses turnout and declining turnout reduces competition -- a vicious circle. The difficulty is compounded by a lack of information on the characteristics of voters. Minimally, we would need to know: (1) that the public believes that elections are becoming less competitive, and (2) that this perception contributes to declining turnout. Despite these caveats, the downstate and Cook County results in figure 3 provide powerful evidence that the two trends are clearly correlated and need further explanation.


Clearly, the falloff in voting participation in Illinois since 1960 has been significant. A quick calculation suggests that over one million more voters would have gone to the polls in Illinois in 1976 (when Ford won Illinois by 113,000 votes) if the state had voted at the 1960 rate. The decline is most severe in the Chicago area. And it cannot be explained away by reference to registration restrictions and can only be partly explained by demographic changes. The falloff in Cook County and the collar counties between 1968 and 1976 suggests a new kind of non-voter -- suburban, middle-class and white. This middle-class rejection of the political system reflects the disillusionment of a generation subjected to political scandal and ineptitude. The idea that voting is futile is no longer restricted to the ghetto.

And people now distrust not only politicians, but also the parties behind them, both nationally and in Illinois. Even the proud Chicago Democratic machine is losing its appeal, as Jane Byrne's recent primary victory over incumbent Mayor Michael A. Bilandic suggests. Yet strong party organizations have traditionally produced competitive elections, and weaker parties may be the most important factor in reducing voter turnout.

Political reformers have reflected their distrust of strong parties in their recommendations for reform. The current campaign for an open primary in Illinois is a good example. Some of the distrust is merited, of course, but reformers ought to keep in mind the evidence which shows that weakening the traditional parties will most likely lead to the increased strength of the stay-at-home party. In the long run, strong, competitive parties are the best insurance for a healty participatory system.

Tables 4, 5

David H. Everson is associate professor of political studies and is director of the Legislative Studies Center at Sangamon State University-Joan Parker is an M.A. candidate in political studies and a graduate assistant in the Legislative Studies Center.

June 1979 / Illinois Issues / 7

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