Who says Americans don't vote? As far as we can tell, they vote more than anybody else in the world - and that's the main reason why voter turnout is declining.
In most countries voters typically are asked to make two or three choices. Americans have to elect dozens of officials at all levels of government.They choose a president, senators, representatives, a governor and lieutenant governor, comptroller, attorney general, state senators and representatives, county judges, circuit court judges, county sheriff, coroner and city officials.
Before voters cast these ballots, of course, they have to vote in primaries. No wonder all but the most committed lose interest in most issues and have trouble staying informed on the bulk of the races.
And then there are the proliferating referendums. In many cases the texts of these measures run to encyclopedic proportions and demand legal training to decipher.
If this trend continues, Americans may soon be voting directly on everything including the federal budget, and there will be no more need for legislators.
In most other countries almost all public offices are filled by the parties, and propositions are decided by elected officials. These systems recognize implicitly that to force too many choices on the citizenry trivializes all but the most important decisions.
Given the effort needed to vote on so many occasions, it is a wonder that so many people bother at all. It is all the more remarkable considering the complexity of American voting.
In most countries registration is automatic for adults. In the United States, registration often takes real effort. If you're lucky you may bump into a volunteer outside a supermarket or some other public place.
Barring that, you have to spend a lot of time and effort to find out what forms you need and where to get them. And you have to go through the same frustrating routine every time you move.
Voting can also be intimidating. The more candidates and propositions, the more levers in the voting booth. Pretty soon, the whole thing begins to look like the inside of an airplane's cockpit - surely, intimidating enough to keep many would-be voters at home.
When Americans, beleaguered by this plethora of choices, exercise their one remaining choice and refuse to vote at all, they are assailed by moralists and political pundits as apathetic and irresponsible. The truth is, Americans invest more effort in casting more votes than any people in the world.
It's no wonder senior citizens are the most likely to vote: You almost have to retire to have the time to participate.
Those pundits who bemoan the declining voting rate might better devote their energies to reducing the quantity and complexity of the electoral system.
(Avi Antman is a graduate student in political science at Columbia University. Anirvan Banerji is a researcher at Columbia's Center for International Business Cycle Research.)