updated 10/19/2006 9:38:09 AM ET 2006-10-19T13:38:09

Count on close, contentious elections to stir up public distrust in the vote count.

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That could be why people in the United States, Italy and Mexico had the lowest levels of confidence in the vote count among nine countries in AP-Ipsos polling taken just weeks before the U.S. midterm elections. Fewer than two-thirds in each of the three countries said they were confident the vote count would be accurate.

That's lower than in the other countries polled - Canada, France, Germany, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom, where three-fourths or more in each country felt the vote count is accurate.

Disputes equal disenfranchisement
"If we're going to have an effective democracy, we can't lose confidence in the institutions that deal with the votes," said Gabriel Nunez, a 39-year-old sales clerk in Mexico City.

In Mexico, Italy and the United States, recent contested elections left one side feeling cheated.

-In Mexico this past summer, ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon was proclaimed the winner after the country's top electoral court rejected claims by leftist candidate Andres Manual Lopez Obrador of widespread fraud. By the end of the year, Mexicans will have an elected president, and the man he beat will have been "inaugurated" president by his followers.

-In Italy's parliamentary elections last April, outgoing Premier Silvio Berlusconi alleged the vote was marred by irregularities and for weeks refused to accept the narrow-margin victory of Romano Prodi's center-left coalition.

-In the United States, the 2000 election was contested for more than a month before the Supreme Court ended the dispute, enabling Republican George W. Bush to be certified the winner over Democrat Al Gore. The 2004 election had enough problems to bring back memories from four years earlier.

-Germans had a close election in 2005 but worked out a compromise and the German people accepted the count with little outcry.

Voter turnout in decline
The U.S. complaints in 2000 and again in 2004 left Charlotte Blum, an independent voter from Fairfax, Vt., with doubts about the accuracy of the vote count. "People were asking for recounts," she said of the 2004 voting. "It's a bad atmosphere for the country."

The doubts come at a time that voter turnout has been sliding in many different countries.

Only half in the United States said they always vote, the lowest level in any of the nine countries polled. More than seven in 10 in Canada, France and Germany say they always vote, with almost that many in Spain and Britain saying that.

Voter turnout is traditionally higher in many European democracies than in the United States, and some voting analysts blame U.S. voter registration laws that put much of the burden on the voter to register.

Voter turnout has been dropping in many democracies, however, and the lack of interest among young adults is frequently cited.

For example:
-In the United Kingdom's 2001 election, just 59 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, the lowest turnout since 1918. The 2005 national elections brought out 61 percent of voters, recording a slight upturn in a trend that has been moving down.
-Voter turnout in Canada has waned steadily over recent years, dropping from 75 percent of registered voters in 1988 to an all-time low of 60 percent in the June 2004 election.
-Turnout for German parliamentary elections usually hovers around 80 percent, matching a post-World War II low last year with about 78 percent of the electorate turning out - still high for most democracies.
-In France, voter turnout has been dropping, especially in parliamentary elections, but the 2002 results when right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen forced a runoff - eventually won by President Jacques Chirac - were a shocker for many.

Youth discouragement
Margot Gillouard, a 19-year-old student in Paris who would be voting for the first time in 2007, is aware of the high stakes in the French elections. "When you see what happened the last time, I wouldn't miss it for anything," she said.

Turnout in the United States has been dropping over the last few decades, but was higher in 2004 when 122 million, or 62 percent of the voting age population, turned out in the presidential contest.

The drop in voting levels is widespread and often involves young people, said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at University of California-Berkeley.

Compulsory voting
"There seems to be a general wave of demobilization, a problem of disengagement," he said, noting that voting is marked by "peaks and valleys." "A major part of it in many countries is young people. They move a lot, they don't have a vested interest in the society."

Compulsory voting is one approach that scattered countries have tried over the years - though few enforce the law. That approach to improving voter turnout was backed by 63 percent in France, 59 percent in Mexico and 58 percent in Britain.

Only 33 percent in the United States favored that approach, according to the polling of about 1,000 people in each of the countries. The telephone polls, conducted between Sept. 8 and Oct. 1, have margins of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points in each country.

Skeptical attitudes about how much an individual's vote counts runs high in European democracies - with totals ranging from 32 percent in Germany and 51 percent in Spain saying they feel their vote doesn't count.

But occasional election problems don't upset Giancarlo Rossi, a 60-year-old export manager in Rome, who agrees with six in 10 in his country that he's confident his vote counts.

"Little tricks can happen often," he said, "but they don't influence the overall result."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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