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Why the poll booths of America are empty

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Mark Mills cares passionately about community issues. He calls local officials and writes letters to the editor about everything from school spending to local tax rates. Yet he rarely votes. Currently, he's not even registered.

"To me, politicians have become so removed from the real world," says the middle-aged Mr. Mills, a computer technician with a PhD who lives in Denver. "Politics is just so ... political."

As the nation's politicians, parties, and press gear up for the first elections of the millennium, more and more Americans are dropping out of the conventional political process - even civic-minded people like Mills.

Indeed, while the United States often holds itself up as a model of democracy, it has chronically produced one of the lowest voter participation rates in the Western world since World War II. It hardly seems what the Founding Fathers had in mind 224 years ago when they set forth a blueprint for a new kind of representative government, one deriving "just powers from the consent of the governed."

Since 1960, when modern-day US presidential voting peaked at 63 percent, turnout has declined by 14 percent, to less than half the voting-age population. This November, it could drop even further. Experts have been grappling with the downward drift for years, but never more than now. Dozens of groups, from Harvard

University to the World Wrestling Federation, are devoting resources to understanding and, they hope, reversing the decline in voting.

"We have a crisis of the erosion of democracy at the grass roots," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Walter Dean Burnham, another expert on voting, says the attitudes associated with low participation - the apathy, the anger, the negative views of government - may be even more dangerous than low turnout itself. In fact, he notes, studies show that people who do vote are just as cynical about politics as people who don't.

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