Sarah Bruce does not consider herself to be apolitical, much less apathetic. The 28-year-old radio producer studied politics at university, cares passionately about environmental issues and maternity benefits, and voted in the U.K.'s general elections in 1997 (for Labour) and 2001 (for the Green Party). But now she doesn't respect any of the three major parties, and has no intention of going to a voting booth on May 5: "What's the point?"
Although their reasoning varies, millions of Britons will join Bruce this Thursday in not casting a ballot. A smaller and smaller percentage of Britons is taking the trouble to vote. At least two major opinion polling organizations forecast that turnout in this election will be the lowest in nearly a century. Nonvoting is an international phenomenon, but in Britain, the drop in votes from young women like Bruce has been especially striking. In the 1997 election that brought Labour to power, 64% of women between 18 and 24 voted, and 70% of those between 25 and 34; in 2001, those numbers plummeted to 46% and 56% respectively. Many young British men, too, decline to vote, although not quite as dramatically, and between 1997 and 2001, the percentage of men between 18 and 24 who voted actually increased, from 56% to 60%.
What turns these voters off? Some cite their own lack of familiarity with issues; others say they don't see much difference among the parties. Where politicians may think they are scoring debate points, nonvoters hear a cacophony of insults. "It seems very cheap to me," says Caroline Fearn, 26, a sports-events manager who has not cast a vote since 1997. "All these cheap shots on posters, that they'll slash X amount of money, etcetera. They should concentrate on their own positives and not the negatives of the other side."
Political scientists differ in how they explain voter abstentions. Some speak of "active" or "rational" indifference; they argue that the chance of an individual vote affecting an election's outcome is so small that choosing to vote is itself an irrational act. Others believe that nonvoters may be responding to the fact that modern Western elections are largely decisions about technocratic competence; nonvoters correctly assume that winning candidates and parties will make largely the same choices as those they defeat. Whatever the truth of those theories, they don't do a very good job of explaining why gender alongside income and education has become such a powerful dividing line between Britain's voters and nonvoters.
Proposals abound to make voting easier Internet voting, SMS voting, voting by post but it's far from proven that such methods actually boost turnout. A judicial report issued last month about two local elections in Birmingham that found "evidence of [postal] electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic" has prodded police to issue special warnings especially since requests for postal ballots in some areas are up to 20 times higher than in 2001. So politicians and nonvoters seem locked in a bind. Women don't vote in part because so few elected officials are women, which is in part because women don't vote. Politicians and parties use negative campaigning because it's effective; if that means that some people don't vote, so be it. Such cynicism only confirms what nonvoters like Fearn already think: "People are so naive that they'll vote one man in and he'll be the one to revolutionize everything. He'll fail at something and people will be disappointed, because that's what happens."