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From the archives:
"The Crisis of Electoral Politics," by Martin P. Wattenberg (May, 1997)
"Scholarly consensus has yet to be reached about the gravity of America's problems of declining turnout, a weakening party system, and the absence of mandates in elections."
"Running Scared," by Anthony King (January, 1997)
Painfully often the legislation our politicans pass is designed less to solve problems than to protect the politicians from defeat in our never-ending election campaigns. They are, in short, too frightened of us to govern.
"The Uncertain Leviathan," by Jonathan Schell (August, 1996)
"Have the voters somehow been disenfranchised? Has a mighty establishment suffocated the popular will, as so many voters now believe? The answers to these questions may lie in deep changes that have occurred in the structure of the electoral system."
"Too Representative Government," by Steven Stark (May, 1995)
Why is Congress held in such low esteem? One reason is that as it has become more truly representative, it has tried to solve more and more problems, including many that no one knows how to solve -- thus raising expectations and frequently disappointing them.
of who wins in next month's midterm elections, a sure bet is that less than
half of the voting-age population will actually participate. The percentage of
the electorate casting ballots for the House of Representatives has fluctuated
between 33 and 45 percent over the past sixteen midterm elections. Recent
turnout rates suggest that the percentage in 1998 will probably be near the
bottom of this range, and quite possibly even lower. In 1996 the
presidential-election turnout fell below 50 percent for the first time since
the early 1920s -- when women had just received the franchise and had not yet
begun to use it as frequently as men. Last year not a single one of the eleven
states that called their citizens to the polls managed to get a majority to
vote. The best turnout occurred in Oregon, where a heated campaign debate had
taken place on the question of whether to repeal the state's "right to die"
law. The worst turnout last year was a shockingly low five percent, for a
special election in Texas. This occurred even though Governor George W. Bush
stumped the state for a week, urging people to participate and promising that a
"yes" vote would result in a major tax cut.|
Universal suffrage means that everyone should have an equal opportunity to
vote, regardless of social background. But over the past three decades studies
have found increasing biases in turnout. In particular, people without college
degrees have become less likely to go to the polls. Statistics from the Census
Bureau on turnout by educational achievement make the point. Respondents were
asked if they had taken part in the most recent national election.
Since 1966 turnout rates have declined most sharply among people at the lower
levels of education. In 1994 people with no college education made up 53
percent of the adult population but only 42 percent of the voters.
No high school diploma
High school diploma
Turnout is now also greatly related to experience in life. Turnout rates have
always been lowest among young people; perhaps this is why there was relatively
little opposition in the early 1970s to lowering the voting age to eighteen.
But not even the most pessimistic analysts could have foreseen the record-low
participation rates of Generation X, as shown in the following census findings
on age and turnout:
The low turnout among young voters today is paradoxical given that they are one
of the best-educated generations in American history. Even those who have made
it to college are expressing remarkably little concern for politics. Chelsea
Clinton's class of 2001 recently set a new record for political apathy among
college freshmen: only 27 percent said that keeping up with politics was an
important priority for them, as opposed to 58 percent of the class of 1970,
with whom Bill and Hillary Clinton attended college.
Of course, Chelsea's classmates have not seen government encroach on their
lives as it did on the lives of their parents -- through the Vietnam War and the
draft. Nor has any policy affected them as directly as Medicare has affected
their grandparents. It is noteworthy that senior citizens are actually voting
at higher rates today than when Medicare was first starting up. Political
scientists used to write that the frailties of old age led to a decline in
turnout after age sixty; now such a decline occurs only after eighty. The
greater access of today's seniors to medical care must surely be given some
credit for this change. Who says that politics doesn't make a difference?
Yet it is difficult to persuade people who have channel surfed all their lives
that politics really does matter. Chelsea's generation is the first in the age
of television to grow up with narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. When CBS,
NBC, and ABC dominated the airwaves, their blanket coverage of presidential
speeches, political conventions, and presidential debates sometimes left little
else to watch on TV. But as channels have proliferated, it has become much
easier to avoid exposure to politics altogether. Whereas President Richard
Nixon got an average rating of 50 for his televised addresses to the nation,
President Clinton averaged only about 30 in his first term. Political
conventions, which once received more TV coverage than the Summer Olympics,
have been relegated to an hour per night and draw abysmal ratings. In sum,
young people today have never known a time when most citizens paid attention to
major political events. As a result, most of them have yet to get into the
habit of voting.
The revolutionary expansion of channels and Web sites anticipated in the near
future is likely to worsen this state of affairs, especially for today's youth.
Political junkies will certainly find more political information available than
ever before, but with so many outlets for so many specific interests, it will
also be extraordinarily easy to avoid public-affairs news altogether. The
result could well be further inequality of political information, with avid
followers of politics becoming ever more knowledgeable while the rest of the
public slips deeper into political apathy. This year's expected low turnout may
not be the bottom of the barrel.
SOME commentators welcome, rather than fear, the decline in turnout rates in
America. If people do not vote, they say, citizens must be satisfied with the
government. There is a certain logic to this view, because if nonvoters were
extremely disgruntled with our leaders, they would undoubtedly take some
political action. However, to argue that nonvoters are content with government
just because they aren't actively opposing it stretches the logic too far. When
the 1996 National Election Study asked people to rate their satisfaction with
how democracy works in the United States, nonvoters were less positive
than voters. Furthermore, young people were more than twice as likely as senior
citizens to be dissatisfied with American democracy.
Why should young adults be satisfied with government, given how few benefits
they receive from it in comparison with their grandparents? But until they
start showing up in greater numbers at the polls, there will be little
incentive for politicians to focus on programs that will help the young. Why
should politicians worry about nonvoters any more than the makers of denture
cream worry about people with healthy teeth? It is probably more than
coincidental that Clinton's two most visible policy failures -- the 1993
economic-stimulus package and the 1994 effort to establish universal health
care -- had their strongest backing from people who were not even registered to
vote. Congressional Republicans may rationally have anticipated that many of
these proposals' supporters were unlikely to be judging them in the 1994
After the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, I saw a bumper sticker that
read NEWT HAPPENS WHEN ONLY 37 PERCENT OF AMERICANS VOTE. Although I don't
usually let bumper stickers determine my research agenda, this one piqued my
interest. Would the Republicans have won the majority of House seats if turnout
had been greater? A simple way to address this question is to assess how much
difference it would have made if voters had mirrored the adult population in
terms of education. According to the 1994 National Election Study, 30 percent
of voters who lacked a high school diploma and 62 percent of voters with
college degrees voted for Republican candidates for the House. Increasing
turnout among the least educated citizens would thus have made some difference.
If turnout rates had been equal in all education categories, the Republican
share of the vote would have fallen from 52.0 to 49.2 percent.
it is unlikely that people of differing education levels would ever vote at
exactly the same rate, this is only one of many biases in electoral
participation. A more comprehensive method of estimating the impact of higher
turnout is to gauge the attitudes of nonvoters toward those factors that
influenced voters in 1994: party identification, approval of Clinton, stands on
issues, and incumbency. Examining only survey respondents who were registered
but did not vote, I found that these nonvoters would have favored Democratic
candidates by an even greater margin than that by which actual voters supported
the Republicans. Had all registered citizens gone to the polls, the
Republicans' share of the vote would have been reduced by 2.8 percent -- exactly
the same estimate as arrived at above. If this loss occurred in all districts,
the Republicans would have won only 206 seats -- twenty-four fewer than they
actually won, and twelve short of a majority.
Such findings, regrettably, suggest that nothing will be done to increase
turnout in America. Few Republicans will want to correct a situation that has
benefited them in the past. Yet until something is done, the House of
Representatives will be representative not of the electorate but only of the
minority that actually votes.
WHAT can be done to reverse the decline in turnout? At his first press
conference after the 1996 election Bill Clinton was asked about the poor
turnout and how to increase participation in the future. The President stumbled
over this question -- he didn't really have an opinion on what could be done, and
he concluded by asking the members of the press corps whether they had any
ideas. Clinton's apparent frustration in addressing the question probably stems
from his involvement in passing the 1993 Motor Voter Act. He and many others
believed that its voter-registration reforms would increase turnout. But
although the registration rolls swelled in state after state prior to the 1996
election, the turnout rate fell dramatically on Election Day. (The Census
Bureau, paradoxically, found fewer people in 1996 than in 1992 who said they
were registered. Apparently, the Motor Voter procedures made registering so
easy that many forgot they had placed their names on the voting ledgers.)
Had Clinton been better advised on this subject, he would not have expected
turnout to increase simply because registering to vote had become easier. North
Dakota has since 1951 not required people to register in order to vote, yet it has seen turnout in presidential elections decline by 22 percent since 1960. Minnesota and Wisconsin have
allowed citizens to register on Election Day since the mid-1970s, but they have
lower turnout rates today than when they had tighter registration laws. In
short, not even the most lenient voter-registration procedures are the answer
to the problem of low turnout.
Clinton is said occasionally to remark that solutions to most public-policy
problems have already been found somewhere -- we just have to scan the horizons
for them. This certainly applies to increasing turnout. Three possible changes
stand out as particularly likely to get Americans to the polls -- though,
unfortunately, their probable effectiveness is inversely related to the
plausibility of their ever being enacted in the United States.
If in an ideal democracy everyone votes, people could simply be required to
participate. This is how Australians reasoned when they instituted compulsory
voting after their turnout rate fell to 58 percent in 1922. Since then the
turnout in Australia has never fallen below 90 percent, even though the maximum
fine for not voting is only about $30, and judges readily accept any reasonable
excuse. However, American political culture is based on John Locke's views on
individual rights, whereas Australian culture was shaped by Jeremy Bentham's
concept of the greatest good for the greatest number. Most Americans would
probably assert that they have an inviolable right not to vote.
Beyond that, it is debatable whether we really want to force turnout rates in
America up to 90 percent. People with limited political knowledge might deal
with being compelled to vote by making dozens of decisions in the same way they
choose lottery numbers. In Australia this is known as the "donkey vote," for
people who approach voting as if they were playing the old children's game.
Given Australia's relatively simple electoral process, the donkey vote is a
small proportion; in America it would probably be greater.
Evidence from around the world indicates that our turnout rates could be
increased if we adopted some form of proportional representation. In our
winner- take-all system many Americans rightly perceive that their votes are
unlikely to affect election outcomes. Proportional representation changes this
perception by awarding seats to small voting blocs. The threshold for
representation varies by country, but typically any party that receives more
than five percent of the national vote earns seats in the legislature. Almost
inevitably when proportional representation is instituted, the number of
political parties grows. And with a range of viable parties to choose from,
people tend to feel that their choice truly embodies their specific interests.
Hence they are more likely to vote.
If we were to adopt proportional representation, new parties would be likely to
spring up to represent the interests of groups such as African-Americans,
Latinos, and the new Christian right. Although this would give members of these
groups more incentive to vote, and thus would raise the low turnout rates of
minority groups, a price would be paid for this benefit. The current system
brings diverse groups together under the umbrellas of two heterogeneous
parties; a multi-party
system would set America's social groups apart from one another. Proportional
representation therefore seems no more practical on the American scene than
A simple but effective change, however, could be made in election timing. An
ordinary act of Congress could move Election Day to a Saturday or make it a
holiday, thereby giving more people more time to vote. An 1872 law established
the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as Election Day. At that
point in history it made little difference whether elections were on Saturday
or Tuesday, because most people worked on Saturday. Only Sunday would have been
a day free of work, but with elections in the late nineteenth century being
occasions for drinking and gambling, that option was out of the question in
such a religious country.
Americans have become quite accustomed to Tuesday elections, just as they have
to the nonmetric system for weights and measures and other artifacts of another
time. State after state has set primary-election dates on Tuesdays -- all
twentieth-century decisions, some of them quite recent. It would be difficult
to change this custom. Furthermore, there would probably be some resistance
from religious minorities that observe the sabbath on Saturday.
An alternative would be to declare Election Day a national holiday. This would
probably be resisted on the basis of cost. A solution would be to move Election
Day to the second Tuesday of November and combine it with Veterans' Day,
traditionally celebrated on November 11. This would send a strong signal about
the importance our country attaches to voting. And what better way could there
be to honor those who fought for democratic rights than for Americans to vote
on what could become known as Veterans' Democracy Day?
Martin P. Wattenberg is the author of
The Decline of American Political Parties, 1952-1996 (1998).
Illustration by Amanda Duffy
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; Should Election Day Be a Holiday?; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 42 - 46.