Sunday, May 1, 1994

Declining Citizen Participation in U.S. Politics


Editor's note: Some things have changed, but root causes remain

The following paper was written in the spring of 1994 - before the rise of the internet, before Newt Gingrich's Republican takeover of Congress, and before George W. Bush stole the 2000 election and gave the American public fresh reasons to doubt that their votes count. Re-reading it now (trying to keep my eyes from glazing over whenever the kind of jargon required by public policy professors pops up, like "intervening variables"), I was struck by what a depressing picture it paints.

It's not all doom and gloom - see the section on Prospects for Future Reform, which lays out a host of worthy policy changes that if enacted, would help turn things around. But this paper definitely could have been subtitled "Reasons Why Our Country is So F-ed Up," and much remains relevant today.



Why are so many citizens alienated from political life in 1990s America? It is undeniable that popular participation in government is currently low at all levels - national, state, and even local. Public opinion polls and research consistently reveal astounding attitudinal levels of cynicism and alienation among U.S. citizens (Appendix I). We take for granted that ours is the world's leading democracy (Piven and Cloward 3), yet Americans vote in lower numbers than citizens of almost every other rich, industrialized nation (Appendix II). Of the 190 million adult Americans currently eligible to vote, approximately half (95 million) have participated in national, presidential elections during the last twenty years (Teixeira 6). Turnout figures for the 1992 presidential election show 104 million Americans cast ballots for president, a higher number than in any election since 1968 (Clymer A11). Yet this still represents only 55% of the total eligible electorate!

Current turnout rates are ten percent less than levels of the 1950s and 1960s, when presidential turnout hovered between 62-65% of eligible Americans (Piven and Cloward 161), and thirty percent less than average turnout levels during much of the nineteenth century (Appendix III). Voters have always turned out in lesser numbers for elections below the presidential level, but in the last twenty years turnout here has become much lower. Congressional race turnouts in off-year elections since 1974 have ranged from a high of 40.5% (1982) to a low of 36.3% (1986), as compared with nearly 50% during the 1960's (Teixeira 6). Obviously, our "low turnout society (1960s) has been turned into an even lower turnout society (1990s) by these trends" (Teixeira 6).


When reduced numbers of voters participate in local, state, and especially national elections, it greatly increases the possibility that apparent electoral choices may not be representative of the truly popular will. Many political theorists think about this issue in slightly different terms, usually framing the problem as one of democratic legitimacy (Gilmour and Lamb 134-140). They feel declining participation could erode the unspoken consent of most citizens in support of the overall U.S. political system, if it has not yet already, and "the results of such delegitimation could range from generalized social and political disorganization" (Teixeira 101) to gridlocked government and the popular devaluation of public service.

Other observers stress that "democracy is not only the most humane form of government, it is also the most fragile. It depends not only for its legitimacy but also for its health and well-being on the involvement of the governed" (Gans 529). In a 1990 report, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate outlined other commonly identified negative societal effects of declining participation levels. They include (1) the danger of policymaking by special interests; (2) the danger to volunteerism and social integration; (3) the danger of a bleak future since younger voters are participating at the lowest levels of all; (4) the threat to political cohesion and the formation of national consensus; (5) the threat to government accountability and the danger of demagoguery; and (6) the danger to orderly process (CSAE, 583-584).

Of all these dangers, the gravest is the surrender of the public interest to private, special interests which is facilitated by declining participation. Only an extremely limited number of Americans influence public policy through methods other than voting. Barring unusual circumstances, only an activist minority becomes involved in political campaigns (19%), donates to candidates (22%), or lobbies government officials (Raasch 1). Due to the influence of money on today's political system (Povich 3), the citizen activists likely to exert the most influence on public policy are members of the upper middle class or the wealthy. Some ordinary citizens do make their voices heard by writing letters to newspapers or to elected officials, or participating in public opinion surveys, but the influence these measures have in shaping public policy is limited. Throughout the 1980s, polls consistently showed public opposition to the policies of Ronald Reagan, yet his policies remained consistent (Mitchell 521-522).

Thus, it is even more important for citizens of all socioeconomic backgrounds to vote. Yet most Americans who vote differ in important respects from those who do not.

"Voters are better off and better educated, and non-voters are poorer and less well educated. Modest variations notwithstanding, this has been true for most of the twentieth century and has actually worsened in the last two decades. In sum, the American electorate overrepresents those who have more, and underrepresents those who have less" (Piven and Cloward 4).

Over time, declining levels of mass voter participation have thus ensured public policy formation in the U.S. would be heavily influenced by a tiny minority of the population, generally our nation's wealthy elites, special interest groups, and private, large-scale economic interests. Public policy is made with these special interests in mind, and designed to serve the public interest only as an afterthought.

Sadly, particularly flagrant instances of policymaking which disregard the public interest seem more prevalent than ever in recent years. Some examples include the Reagan-era deregulation of the U.S. broadcasting industry which accelerated corporate concentration of ownership of the media (Lee and Soloman 71); national transportation policies that have neglected public transportation in order to preserve automobile industry profits (Brown 115); national energy policies that have similarly ignored alternative energy research out of subservience to the oil industry (D.H. Davis 269- 270); recent congressional passage of NAFTA without concern for its long-term contributions to continued American deindustrialization (Brecher 685); on-going, unquestioned levels of U.S. military and economic aid to human rights-violating nations such as El Salvador (Fish and Sganga 12), Guatemala (Lafaber 359), Indonesia (Pilger 551) and Israel (Findley ix-xvii); and the 1981 Reagan tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans which have "cost the public more than $1 trillion since 1978, according to Citizens For Tax Justice" (Extra!Update 2).


Rule by the elite is not a new development in U.S. history. Since colonial times, American elites have maintained tight controls on who would be allowed to have a voice in public affairs. From property voting restrictions to denying the franchise to women and black Americans, too much popular participation in government has long been discouraged. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 accomplished many things, but:

"It did not provide for popular elections, except in the case of the House of Representatives, where the qualifications were set by the state legislatures (which required property-holding for voting in almost all the states), and excluded women, Indians, slaves...however, the problem of democracy in post-Revolutionary society was not Constitutional limitations on voting. It lay the division of society into rich and poor. For if some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system - how could voting, however broad, cut into such power?" (Zinn 95).

Nevertheless, American elites have displayed continued unwillingness to take such a chance. As newly enfranchised former slaves and an increasingly urbanized working class began to vote their class interests in the late nineteenth century, elites worked to enact structural electoral changes which brought high levels of popular mobilization back down. In the North, these changes were made under the guise of "reforms" designed to prevent fraud, such as outlawing the party ballot and instituting personal voter registration (Kousser 51). In the South, measures such as the poll tax and literacy tests were passed explicitly to take the franchise back from black citizens. They also had the effect of disfranchising poor Southern whites (Piven and Cloward 83).

Although the legal forms of these voting restrictions in the South have disappeared, their legacy remains. Southern blacks in some communities still face fraud, intimidation, and legal efforts to slow the full realization of their political strength. In 1990, state Republican party officials in North Carolina mailed 150,000 postcards containing misleading and fraudulent information to black voters only a week before the Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate election (Edsall A13).

"Reports persist of subtle economic intimidation against black voters, particularly in sections of the Mississippi Delta and rural Georgia. There have been numerous accounts, sometimes in court, of plants that 'happened' to close late on election day and of landowners who increased their election-day hires, only to keep those workers in the fields until after polls had closed. There remains, said Gerald Jones in 1985 (head of the Justice Department's voting section), a sense among poor blacks in some plantation counties that 'if you want to eat, you better not cross Mr. So-and-So' by voting" (Edds 14-15).

Overall Southern voting levels still lag behind the rest of the country (Appendix II). Furthermore, while Southern black voting levels did rise dramatically in the decade following passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the new, post-1968 decline in voting levels has affected Americans of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds in all other regions of the country (Hadley 60).

In the North, most of the voter registration procedures originally implemented to curb working class participation still exist, and their effects continue to be felt. In 1972, the middle class voted at one and a half times the rate of working class Americans, 77 percent versus 52 percent (Burnham 114). The overall percentage of Americans who were registered to vote in 1984 was estimated to be only between 63 and 64 percent (Piven and Cloward 258).

If presidential majorities can be delivered by little more than a quarter of the electorate (assuming 50% turnouts), and our Congress is composed of individuals elected on average by less than one fifth of all eligible voters (35-40% turnout levels), how representative of truly popular wishes is our system of government?

We are entering what some proclaim to be the brave new world of the information age. Its promise is based largely on hopes that still-theoretical technologies will give us "interactive communication highways," bringing the power of information within reach of everyone (Elmer-Dewitt 58). But will every citizen have equal access to such power if participatory democracy no longer exists in America? Or if it never really has? For the long-term health of our democracy, we must address these issues now.


It is a complex undertaking to try to diagnose the root causes of trends as endemic as modern day political alienation in America and declining levels of citizen participation in U.S. government. A realization that more inclusive citizen participation has been discouraged by American elites ever since our nation's very beginnings makes this policy dilemma even more systemic, and one so deeply ingrained in our nation's fabric as to perhaps be unalterable.

On the most basic level, citizen participation can be measured by voter turnout rates. As previously shown, citizens can influence public policy through methods other than voting, but voting "has been shown in a number of surveys to be a lowest common denominator act - people who do not vote are not likely to participate in any other form of social, civic, or political activity." (Gans 528). It is the minimal contribution citizens can make and still have some say in the direction of public affairs. Thus, fluctuating voter turnout rates are the dependent variable my research will examine.

Many policy variables influence U.S. voter turnout rates. I have identified three as the most important: (1) levels of civic education, (2) financing of elections, and (3) structural electoral rules, including voter registration procedures. These are also the variables most directly subject to policy changes aimed at boosting levels of citizen participation by increasing voter turnout rates.

Two further factors are relevant to both historically low levels of popular participation and the more recent, post-1968 decline. They are (1) the technologically-driven, ever-increasing complexity of modern life in America, and (2) vast disparities in wealth between rich and average Americans. These factors are more historically constant and less subject to change through policy reform.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows: Section V discusses how these three variables and two historical factors are interrelated, including my principal hypothesis for reform and a look at other intervening variables. Section VI examines each of the five in detail. Section VII offers specific policy recommendations designed to reverse the trend of declining citizen participation each of these five factors contributes to, and general conclusions pertaining to the political feasibility of future reform.


A. Principal Hypothesis For Reform

If reforms are instituted such as the provision of more focused civic education/information in schools and on television, public campaign financing laws, and structural electoral reform in the form of less frequent election scheduling, the adoption of majority preferential voting, and liberalized voter registration procedures, voter turnout and citizen participation will increase. A more informed and active public will be better able to identify policies truly in the public's best interest, now partially obscured by the increased complexities of modern society.

This will lead to the election of lawmakers dedicated to the public interest before wealthy, private interests. Over the long term, such a revival of popular representation will hopefully contribute to a redress of the vast inequities between rich and poor which exist in our country and around the world.

B. Other Intervening Variables

In addition to the previously mentioned five primary factors behind declining levels of participation, there are other contextual, intervening, and control variables which somewhat muddy any analysis of this issue.

These include (1) the influence on participation rates by public perceptions of the existing class of lawmakers and high-level political leaders; (2) other varying socioeconomic characteristics of voters besides education and income, including race and age; (3) the behavior of institutions who play a direct role in policy implementation regarding citizen participation, such as local or state election boards or offices of secretaries of state; (4) the structural nature of information mediums by which citizens receive information about politics, i.e., newspapers, television; (5) the levels of political education necessary for citizens to feel they "know enough about the issues to vote," partially dependent on the levels of complexity involved in understanding particular social or political issues; (6) the relative sense of public drama and attention surrounding particular elections; (7) differing levels of ambition on the parts of candidates to seek office; (8) candidates' differing abilities to wage campaigns that effectively mobilize voters; (9) special interests who subsidize efforts to influence public policy, or more specifically, to affect citizen participation rates, and (10) citizens' relative levels of mobility, determining how rooted or connected they are to the political life of individual communities.

C. Relationships Between Variables

Low levels of civic education, a campaign financing system biased towards wealthy interests, overly frequent elections, the two party bias of winner-take-all voting, and restrictive voter registration procedures all function to reduce voter turnout levels. Their impact is compounded by the more historically constant factors of technologically-driven, ever-increasing complexity in American life, and the vast disparities in wealth which exist between rich and average Americans.

Of the ten other variables previously identified, several can be classified as contextual ones, directly related (as either causes or effects) to these initial five variables. They also function to reduce turnout. These include (1) public perceptions of the existing class of lawmakers and high-level political leaders as out of touch with the problems of average Americans; (2) the fact that young, poor, and minority citizens in America all tend to vote less than their older, richer, white peers, which could change if voter registration procedures were liberalized, access to education broadened, and income disparities reduced; (4) the shift from newspapers to television as the primary information medium by which citizens receive information about politics, leading to a less informed public; and (5) the increasing levels of political education necessary for citizens to feel they "know enough about the issues to vote," due in part to the increasingly complex nature of modern day life.

Most of the others should be more correctly labeled intervening variables. These affect turnout rates relatively independently of the primary five factors we have identified, but would still be affected by certain reforms involving these five factors.

They include: (6) the relative sense of public drama and attention surrounding particular elections, which would be affected by reforms leading to increased multiparty competitiveness; (7) differing levels of ambition on the parts of candidates to seek office; (8) candidates' differing abilities to wage campaigns that effectively mobilize voters; and (9) the increasing number of wealthy special interests who subsidize efforts to influence public policy, or more specifically, to affect citizen participation rates. These last three intervening variables would all be affected by campaign finance reform.

Finally, variable (10) - citizens' relative levels of mobility, i.e., how rooted or connected they are to the political life of individual communities - which would function less as a barrier to participation if voter re-registration became automatic when people move, as part of an liberalization of voter registration procedures.

The only true control variable is (3) - the existence of state and local election boards jealous of their turf who will tend to resist any liberalizing reforms involving voter registration. These bureaucrats have overseen a system of restricted access to the vote for decades, and thus can be expected to display some inertia when forced to implement reforms, no matter how slight.

The relationships between many of the variables in our model are circular. For example, when registration requirements are liberalized, more people will vote, including the young, poor, minority voters and highly mobile citizens. This will in turn lead to the election of public officials more directly concerned with the welfare of the overall community. Over the long term, this may allow the enactment of policies that reduce income disparities by eliminating poverty levels.


A. Increasing Complexity of Society

The first factor relevant to declining participation levels is a relatively historically constant one. A belief in progress and technology has always been a central article of faith for most Americans (Noble 3). Subsequently, technological developments have long been accepted as natural and inevitable and almost every successive generation of Americans has experienced a technologically-driven increasing complexity of life (Slater 128-130). This march of progress has intensified a hundred-fold since the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, and in the process shaped a nation which would be as alien to our ancestors as another planet might be to us. The technological changes that have transformed America in the twentieth century have had almost limitless implications for our lives and the nature of our democracy. Regarding only one aspect of life, the field of communications, consider simply "when one considers pop music, radio, newspapers, magazines, computers, and video games - in addition to TV - we are exposed to more mass media messages in one day than our grandparents saw in a month" (J. Davis 2).

A related factor is the decline of community institutions such as churches, schools, and labor unions in the lives of U.S. citizens. "The institutional base of American society has atrophied...traditional institutions no longer stand for what they once did" (Gans 535). Another is the decline in what social scientists call the "social connectedness" of ordinary citizens, stemming from greater social isolation, increased divorce rates and greater personal mobility (Appendix IV). Today, the average American will move seven times over the course of their life. Each year, approximately 20% of Americans change residences (Weiss 30).

The root causes of social problems existing in our country today are increasingly intertwined and thus harder to understand than problems may have seemed (or actually been) in the past. Thus, there is not only "growing confusion in our society...(but) growing confusion about how to deal with it" (Gans 528). Many people look around them and see a world spinning out of control, with mounting social problems and signs of moral, physical, and societal decay evident everywhere. The revival of American religious fundamentalism seen in the 1970s and 1980s is one direct manifestation of increased alienation from the complexities of modern day life (Crawford 159-164).

B. Disparities In Wealth

The second historically constant factor to keep in mind is the relatively large disparities in personal wealth between America's very rich and the rest of us. "The dirty little secret of our country is that most Americans don't have enough money" (Harrington 26). "One percent of our nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99% against each other" (Zinn 571).

"A study estimating U.S. wealth distribution for 1962 by means of a detailed survey of a large sample of households found that the top 0.5 percent of "consumer units" (families and single individuals living alone) had 25.8 percent of the wealth. The top 1 percent had 34 percent, the top 10 percent had 62 percent, and the top 30 percent held about 85 percent" (Domhoff 42).

Politics has a lot to do with the distribution of wealth in a society, and resentment develops in the mass consciousness when we are shown an idealized good life on television and in the movies which is out of financial reach for most Americans. The current average American income is approximately $36,000 (Teixeira 35). Measured only against today's costs of sending a child to college, it is not hard to see why more and more middle class Americans feel they are losing ground. Current average annual tuition rates at American four-year colleges and universities now top $6,000 for public and $20,000 for private schools (Stewart A5, H. Anderson 66).

Although income disparities have long been a relatively constant feature of American life, post-World War Two prosperity raised living standards for an unprecedented number of citizens (Leuchtenburg 48-49). However, the rise of a global economy has caused U.S. manufacturing jobs to be shipped overseas, witnessed corporate downsizing that eliminates white collar jobs by the thousands, and meant that recent U.S. job creation has occurred primarily in the low-paid service sector(Brecher 685-686). These developments have eroded middle class prosperity (Appendix IV). Real wages for the vast majority of Americans have remained stagnant for two decades, and within the past few years have actually declined back to levels of the mid-1960s (Chomsky 412). As for the working poor, recent census figures show that in 1992, 18% of the nation's full-time workers earned less than the poverty level ($13,091 a year for a family of four), compared with 12% in 1979 (DePerle A10).

"As the 1980s became the 1990s, many who had become accustomed to middle-class living standards suddenly found their own well-being threatened and worried about how their children would manage to make their way in an increasingly competitive world economy" (Dionne 13).

A 1991 opinion poll "found people agreeing by an 84% to 13% margin that 'in recent years, the rich have been getting richer, and it's been harder for middle income and working families to get by'" (Parenti 103). The response of many who feel the system has abandoned them by ignoring their economic interests has been a personal abandonment of the system through the refusal to vote. As shown by the more than 19 million votes received by independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992(Clymer A11), in the absence of real reform, only under exceptional circumstances will these non-voters be motivated to resume participation.

According to National Election Study data, "lower-class groups of Americans...(have) showed the greatest turnout declines" (Piven and Cloward 161). Between 1964 and 1980, the percentage of unemployed voters dropped from 58% to 41.2%, a decline of 16.8 percent. The corresponding turnout drop for employed citizens was from 73% to 61.8%, or a 11.2 percent decrease (Piven and Cloward 162). Between 1960 and 1988, voter turnout rates for the lowest-income third of Americans fell from 68.5% to 52.8%, or by 15.7 percent. Turnout rates for the wealthiest third of Americans dropped from 87.2% to 83.6%, a decline of only 3.6 percent (Appendix V).

"The lack of participation on the part of the poor may be the result of a rational assessment of a hopeless political situation created by the the postwar period the people who didn't vote were the poor, the minorities, the less educated, the lower-paid strata of the working class...they did not see any party or leader who made it worth their while to get involved" (Harrington 245-246).

Since working class citizen turnouts were already kept down by the disfranchising methods previously outlined, these more recent declines are especially troubling.

C. Levels Of Civic Education

The first variable conducive to policy reform and relevant to declining participation levels is public ignorance, or rather, the state of enforced public ignorance people are kept in. Time and time again, non-voters give "not knowing enough about the issues" as a primary reason for not voting (Teixeira 11). Unless people are aware of how political choices affect their lives and which political candidates (if any) truly represent their economic and ideological interests, they will lack motivation to participate in public affairs by casting a vote or any by other means.

We face a particularly acute set of obstacles to achieving and maintaining high levels of civic education in our country. One is the historic treatment of U.S. mass media as profit-making entities (Bagdikian xx) instead of social institutions dedicated to keeping the public informed. Another factor is the persistent strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture (Hofstadter 3-9) which endures because of unequal, income-based access to education at all levels of the system, from public schools funded by widely varying local property taxes to universities with sky-high tuition rates.

In 1950, only 15% of Americans had attended some college. By 1988 this figure had more than doubled, to 38%, but the number of college graduates was only 19% (Teixeira 83). College is still an upper-level form of education available only to a minority of the population. In 1988 a full 62% of all U.S. citizens had high school or lower-level educations: 39.3% of them high school graduates, 22.6% without diplomas (Appendix VI).

Just as there have been increases in college education levels, these high school graduation figures represent a marked increase over high school graduation rates of thirty or forty years ago (Appendix IV). 77.4% of Americans had high school diplomas by 1988, compared with only 51% in 1960 (Teixeira 34). But according to College Board statistics, mean SAT scores have slipped steadily over the past forty years (Grossman 3D), which partially offsets the impact of rising high school graduation rates. During this same period, the increasing complexity of modern life has made it necessary for U.S. citizens to attain higher levels of education just to keep abreast of social and technological change. As America has shifted to a high-tech, high-skilled, service-based economy (Brecher 687), in many cases higher education levels have become essential to simply keeping one's job. "By the mid-seventies, most (college students) realized a liberal-arts bachelor's degree was worth about as much as a high school diploma of a generation ago" (Harrington 63).

In any case, rising education levels have been offset by the fact that over the years, the U.S. public consistently has been kept poorly informed by the for-profit, increasingly corporate-owned mass media as to the true nature of forces shaping our lives and possible solutions to our society's problems (Parenti 1-8). Twin factors of corporate control and advertiser influence create inherent biases in the supposedly "objective" news we see and hear. Most channels of mass communication in our country are organized and owned by large media corporations (Bagdikian 4). Some of these corporate entities are themselves directly owned by other conglomerates, such as General Electric, the company that owns NBC. Most are controlled by boards of directors whose members also own and control other large, non-media corporations - the so-called "interlocking directorates" of the corporate ruling class.

"The boards of directors of the Big Three (networks) are composed of executives, lawyers, financiers, and former government officials who represent the biggest banks and corporations in the U.S., including military and nuclear contractors, oil companies, agribusiness, insurance and utility firms" (Lee and Soloman 81).

Nearly all of the mass media are involved in business relationships with other large corporations who pay them to advertise their products. On average, magazines derive 50% of their total revenue from ads; newspapers approximately 75-80%; and network television, 100% (Dominick 126, 146).

Corporate control and advertiser influence over the mass media cannot help but influence the selection and presentation of news (Bagdikian 15, 138). If news stories surface which reflect badly on companies owning mass media outlets, the stories will be ignored or minimized (Cirino 234).

The existence of interlocking directorates tying media boards of directors directly to dozens of other non-media corporations (Parenti 29) extends this aura of preferential journalistic treatment to business interests far beyond those who exercise direct ownership power over a particular media entity (such as GE's power over NBC). The mass media's economic need to maintain advertising revenues by staying in good favor with corporate advertisers has made the entire corporate system into a "sacred cow" (Lee and Soloman 75). Occasional instances of blatant corporate wrongdoing, consumer fraud, or worker exploitation may be publicized, but (a) only enough to make people think the mass media are fulfilling their adversarial, public watchdog role, and (b) infrequently enough to perpetuate the illusion that such scandals are rare exceptions in a smoothly running corporate system rather than being the rule in a badly functioning, exploitative one (Parenti 69).

The gradual dumbing effect of television on people has also played a part in offsetting the effects of increased education levels and decreasing participation in numerous other ways. According to some media critics:

"Television has served to atomize our society; weaken our institutions; reduce participation by making people spectators and consumers rather than involved participants; decreased reading, comprehension and conversation; and increased public confusion. It gives (us) information in undifferentiated blips and by highlights of the most visually exciting" (Gans 536).

Whether one agrees with this analysis or not, it is undeniable we are watching more television than ever before - by the late eighties, more than seven hours in average daily viewing time per U.S. household (Daley 1). The television we watch does little to provide meaningful information to most Americans. "In the United States, roughly 97% of prime-time broadcast TV is devoted to entertainment programming. Americans are entertainment rich and knowledge poor" (Elgin 70). Television has also offset rising education levels in a structural sense, by discouraging daily newspaper reading. "Daily household (newspaper) penetration has dropped from 97.9% in 1970 to 66.3% in 1990" (Ungaro 3-4).

The true picture may be even bleaker than already painted. Despite the previously quoted official figures regarding education levels, business sources and the most recent, comprehensive, U.S. Dept. of Education four-year study of adult American literacy rates both estimate that approximately 44% of our population can today be classified as functionally illiterate (Celis A1).

D. Financing Of Elections

The second primary factor affecting participation rates is the structure of our campaign financing system. Decreasing levels of public education, coupled with a simultaneous explosion in financial resources necessary to win election to major public offices has resulted in the election of a whole class of public officials more devoted to serving wealthy, private interests than the public interest. Historically, most big political money went into presidential campaigns. After campaign financing reforms of 1974 set up public subsidies for the presidential campaign in general elections, the quest for direct influence over public policy shifted to congressional races. Between 1974 and 1986, the average cost of a House incumbent's campaign increased from $56,539 to $334,222 and the average cost for incumbent Senators jumped from $555,714 to $3,303,518. (Smith 155).

"The money chase means Senate and House members court big donors at the expense of little ones. They especially seek donations from influential political action committees where contributions are measured in thousands of dollars...particularly in the U.S. House, where members must run every two years, a shadowy network of special interests has evolved to finance congressional campaigns, with most of these contributions going to incumbents" (Povich 2).

Campaign costs have skyrocketed for two reasons. The first is that media time for political advertising must be purchased at the exorbitant rates charged for private advertising. Local stations are spotty in their compliance with the FCC's lowest rate charge rule, which supposedly mandates stations to charge political candidates the lowest possible ad rates. In 1990, U.S. television stations made estimated revenues of between $230 million and $300 million from the sale of political ads (Flint 27). The increased reliance of campaigns on television advertising has also worsened the sound bite nature of modern politics by allowing little opportunity for real debate to occur on issues. "Television whittles the substance of politics down to 30-second spots, often attacks on opponents, giving the electorate a bad taste for politics" (Povich 1).

The second reason for ridiculously high campaign costs has been previously alluded to - the control of Congress by special interest money. A 1991 Los Angeles Times study billed as "the most comprehensive study of campaign spending ever undertaken" (Fritz and Morris 1), found of the nearly $200 million spent by Senate candidates in the 1990 election cycle, 35% was spent on advertising and media consultants. House candidates spent only 25% of their funds on advertising.

"The Times' findings tend to support the view of critics of the campaign finance system, who contend the cost of elections is not growing because of any single expenditure but because special interests are willing to supply candidates with more and more money" (Fritz and Morris 1).

Lax campaign regulations allow corporations and other private interests to form political action committees (PAC's) and contribute too much to candidates, sometimes by "bundling" (Smith 258-259) large contributions from many executives of one firm together to evade PAC spending limits. The funds they provide flow mostly to incumbents, not challengers, which also deters real competition in elections. The money chase necessarily restricts the field of candidates who can afford to seek public office to the wealthy or those whose campaigns are financed by wealthy special interests.

In this instance, though, Lincoln's maxim that "you can't fool all of the people all of the time" comes into play. Big money televised propaganda barrages using 30-second political attack ads may often prevent people from realizing which candidates would best represent their interests during the final, crucial few weeks of hard fought election campaigns. But during the intervals between elections, when elected officials have to govern, it becomes slightly harder to keep people from realizing they're losing out. Sooner or later, it begins to sink in that decisions are being made which time and time again leave the public interest out in the cold.

Thus, negative public perceptions of the existing political class generalizes to an overall distrust for government and negatively affects participation rates.

E. Structural Electoral Rules

The third and final variable impacting participation rates is the system of electoral rules which governs how democracy functions at the level of the voting booth. Many aspects of these rules are biased in favor of low levels of citizen participation, including overly frequent elections, the winner-take-all method of U.S. electoral competition which functions to keep smaller third parties from challenging the two party system, gerrymandered districts, and personal voter registration requirements.

Too-frequent elections

Voting theorists have formed hypotheses about turnout rates by analyzing both the costs and benefits of voting (Teixeira 11). From this perspective, the more frequently elections are scheduled, the higher the costs of voting as an activity become for individual citizens.

Problems arise because unlike most liberalizing electoral changes of the past few decades, many states have shifted their election calendars and now hold elections more frequently than they did in the past (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 565). Most local and some state elections have been moved to non-Congressional (odd-numbered) years. This was done in the name of increasing voter awareness about local elections, out of a fear election day schedules had become too cluttered. Ironically, it has become yet another factor in maintaining a permanent election cycle that dilutes the overall importance of voting in people's minds. The relative weights of these tradeoffs are not immediately clear.

Furthermore, many municipalities now have the authority to schedule special elections for local offices at will. The combined effects of these developments have been the creation of a state-by-state, city-by-city patchwork of erratic voting schedules. In April, 1992 testimony before a N.C. legislative commission on voter participation, State Board of Elections executive director Alex Brock referred to the need for reform in this area:

"North Carolina, from my vantage point, simply places an unnecessary burden upon its voting citizens by permitting elections to be called with erratic is a sad commentary when some of our elected officials consistently call special elections just before or after a countywide or citywide election, regularly scheduled, has been conducted." (LRC Appendix I-3).


America's winner-take-all method of electoral competition presents far greater obstacles to popular participation. It is also described as a first-past-the-post structure of competition. Except for scattered local experiments with alternative voting methods, this method of competition exists at all levels of the system.

"Where electoral districts are...winner-take-all, voters supporting the minority side in an unbalanced (lopsided) district will have reduced incentive to cast a ballot (as will party organizations to mobilize these voters)...for example, Democratic presidential voters in a heavily Republican U.S. state." (Teixeira 15).

Thus, at the presidential level the electoral college functions to reduce voter incentive in the same way winner-take-all, single-member districts work at the Congressional level.

In addition, winner-take-all voting effectively blocks nearly all third-party electoral challenges. In any three-way race where a third party candidate runs against a Democrat and Republican, the third party candidate must possess pre-existing high levels of support to neutralize the historic advantages enjoyed by the two major parties under the status quo of a strong two party system. Otherwise, potential supporters of the third-party challenge actually have negative incentive to vote for their preferred candidate, since in all likelihood it will only mean splitting the vote and elevating their least desirable choice to office.

This creates almost insurmountable obstacles for smaller parties to overcome, and necessarily leads to a shrunken spectrum of popular representation. Democratic and Republican candidates enjoy huge advantages against all challengers. Grassroots mobilization from outside the two-party system is stifled, which could otherwise increase participation (Teixeira 17). Those in favor of this status quo usually argue America is such a fractious, pluralistic country that representative democracy can only function if elected officials are charged with enacting broad consensus policies. But as the system now functions, all Americans are not being adequately represented.


The creation of gerrymandered districts is also a structural factor that limits electoral competitiveness is the modern era (Mitchell 523). Once every decade, state legislators are have direct control over the redistricting of their own state legislative districts and any congressional district boundaries within their individual states. This is done to reflect any geographic population shifts of the previous decade. The development of sophisticated geographic/demographic computer software has made it increasingly possible for these legislators to tailor districts to their best election advantage, or to help other party allies retain their seats.

This has further increased the ability of incumbent elected officials to remain in power. However, state legislators are not about to relinquish their redistricting power to any other authority. Therefore, this factor should be considered a relatively historically constant one that will always contribute to the power of incumbency, no matter how much citizen voter turnout increases or how many responsive public officials are elected.

Voter Registration

Many critics of the U.S. electoral process have concluded that of these four major structural flaws (overly frequent elections, winner-take-all electoral competition, gerrymandering, and voter registration requirements), an obstacle-laden system of personal voter registration reduces participation the most (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 567; CSAE 585; Teixeira 106).

Approximately two-thirds of Americans are registered to vote (Piven and Cloward 258). Once people are registered, they vote at relatively high rates regardless of age or education levels (Appendix V). Critics point out "the U.S. is the only major democracy where government assumes no responsibility for helping citizens cope with voter registration requirements" (Piven and Cloward 17). Voting in the United States is a two-step process in which the first step, getting registered to vote, is not as easy as it might seem. In most other rich, industrialized nations, voter registration is automatic. Great Britain and Canada keep their voting rolls updated through national canvasses, government run and conducted annually (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 562). This helps explain why U.S. voting levels rank low by international comparison (Appendix II).

Since 1960, substantial revisions have been made in statewide voter registration systems. The pace of reform has speeded significantly in the past decade.

Important changes include:

"(1) the abolition of poll taxes; (2) the abolition of literacy tests; (3) the formal prohibition of discrimination within the registration process; (4) the increased availability of bilingual registration materials; (5) the large increase in the number of states permitting registration by mail; (6) the sharp decline in the length of state residency requirements, from a year or more in most states in 1960 to the current, almost uniform level of a month or less; (7) the movement of closing dates - that is, the last date one can register to vote in a given election - closer to the date the election is held; and (8) the implementation of minimum national standards for absentee registration" (Teixeira 29).

More recently, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the so-called "Moter-Voter" bill (Appendix X), was signed into law by President Clinton on May 20, 1993 (McNeely 21A). This legislation requires states to provide voter registration at driver's license bureaus and other federal or state agencies, including welfare offices, disability service offices, and military recruiting centers. It also extends mail registration to all fifty states, and prohibits the "purging" of voters from voting rolls simply for failure to vote. Prior to its passage, twenty-five states had no "moter voter" programs, twenty-three states prohibited mail registration, and all but nine states purged citizens from voter registration rolls after an average of three years' failure to vote (Appendix VII).

Important as these reforms have been, they still leave much progress to be made.

As part of the log-rolling that preceded passage of the "Moter Voter" Act, concessions were made to Senate Republicans. Mandated registration at unemployment agencies was dropped from the bill and mandated registration at military recruitment offices added. Mandated welfare agency-based registration was included in the legislation only after an outcry on the part of progressive groups, who argued convincingly that "motor voter" programs by themselves would expand the electorate without overcoming its upward class bias. In 1983, 93% of the 31 million adults in households with incomes over $40,000 had driver's licenses, compared with only 47% of the 36 million adult Americans with household incomes of less than $10,000 (Piven and Cloward 222).

As the National Voter Registration Act's more popularly-known title suggests, its emphasis is on expanded "moter voter" registration, which casts doubts on how broadly the bill's other major provisions (welfare agency-based and mail registration) will be implemented by state election boards.

Voter registration procedures not addressed by the "motor voter" legislation still vary from state to state (Appendix VII). There are still many structural flaws in these procedures. They include limited hours and locations where registration can occur (CSAE 588), inadequate public education and information campaigns designed to ensure citizens know how and where to go about registering to vote (Piven and Cloward 178), the lack of automatic re-registration for voters who change addresses (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 569), the linkage of jury duty lists to voter registration rolls (Hadley 72), and the continued existence of overly restrictive closing dates for voters to register before elections (Gans 531). Finally, most states do not have fully computerized statewide registration systems (LRC Report Appendix J-5), and underfunded state election boards lack the resources necessary to carry out any proposed reforms.

Antiquated voter registration laws are not the only source of procedural flaws. Obstructionist local election boards in most states also create unnecessary barriers to fuller participation in elections. Local election board officials "are closely connected to local politicians who want the security of a stable and reliable electorate and who therefore resist new and unpredictable voters" (Piven and Cloward 196). Like any bureaucrats, they are hesitant to take on additional work and show resistance to any proposed reforms or changes in their established practices. A dozen or so lawsuits were filed in the 1980s against local election boards who refused to deputize volunteers involved with community voter registration campaigns, in states including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan (Piven and Cloward 179).

Even today in some counties, voter registration is available only in an extremely limited number of locations, at inconvenient hours. Most election boards do not implement public education campaigns to inform citizens how and where to go about registering to vote.

"There is still only one registration office in many counties, and it might be open only during working hours, thus creating an income test because of travel costs, as well as an education test, since it is not easy to discover the location of many boards of elections. Few boards are willing to establish satellite registration centers in poor neighborhoods...the widely heralded reforms of the registration process during the last fifteen years have had little impact on these barriers. Registration by mail has not raised registration levels because election fficials refuse to make the forms widely available where people live or ork. Arranging to obtain a form is not simple. Even finding the telephone number of an election office in the typical directory can be difficult, since the names by which election boards go are bewildering" (Piven and Cloward 178).

A citizen's voter registration does not automatically follow them when they move. People must re-register whenever they change addresses, creating complications for our highly mobile population. Students who travel away from home to attend college are one group particularly affected. This is an especially troubling development because it discourages citizens from voting immediately after they become eligible to vote.

Court decisions in the 1970s ruled students were entitled to vote where they attend college. Yet in order to do so, students need to either be previously registered in their home towns, and apply for absentee ballots, or register to vote in the communities where they go to school.

The rules governing application for absentee ballots are not well publicized by most county election boards. College towns and universities themselves often take no special steps to ensure their student populations have access to voter registration. Thus, students who want to vote don't know where to turn. College students are structurally discouraged from voting during a crucial period in their development as citizens. True, they represent only a minority of their age groups, since most Americans do not attend college, but this is still one of the reasons younger Americans vote at such low levels.

In most states, citizens are chosen to serve jury duty from the ranks of voter registration rolls. At one point in the 1970s, California's Field poll "uncovered 5 percent of their sample of non-voters in California who were not registered to avoid jury duty" (Hadley 72-73). This figure may be on the low side, since voters who do not register for this reason are understandably reluctant to admit to it.

Finally, there is the dilemma of early voter registration deadlines. In most states, voter registration deadlines fall anywhere from two weeks to four weeks before general elections occur (Appendix VII). All political campaigns intensify in the closing weeks before election day. Indeed, many people only begin to pay serious attention to upcoming elections during the last one or two weeks (Haley 123). In contrast to the fanfare that surrounds an election day, the deadline to register to vote passes quietly. Many people decide to vote only in the weeks immediately before an election. Unless they have previously registered, at this point it is too late (Teixeira 108).

Brief mention should be given to one additional type of structural electoral condition that some voting theorists have identified as contributing to low turnout rates. Elections in the United States are traditionally held on Tuesdays, a work day for most Americans. There is no clear consensus as to whether shifting election days to weekends or making them holidays would actually increase turnout (Teixeira 143), but this type of reform is often proposed (NCR 80).


Now that we have examined these five factors in some detail, I will outline specific policy recommendations designed to reverse the trend of declining citizen participation each contributes to, and offer some general conclusions pertaining to the political feasibility of future reform.

A. Increasing Complexity of Society

B. Disparities In Wealth

Again, these first two factors should be regarded as relatively historically constant and subject to little change through electoral policy reform. The only hope is for these factors to be affected by reforms concerning the next three variables under discussion.

C. Levels Of Civic Education

If levels of civic education are a variable open to the influence of public policy reform, what can be done? Schools and the media must bear a shared mission to better educate Americans about our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy, and keep us well informed on an on-going basis. If people develop habits of citizenship from early ages, they will be more likely to vote on a regular basis.

Towards these ends, schools need to begin by teaching civic education more creatively and effectively. In elementary schools, activities such as mock elections could be introduced on a widespread basis as a way to help children become accustomed to the U.S. political system. Mock elections can be conducted on a classroom or school-wide basis, and if timed to coincide with real world elections provide students with a perfect framework for drawing connections between political concepts learned inside and outside of school. The most promising model for these efforts is a program known as "Kids Voting." First introduced in Arizona in 1988, it reached 675,000 Arizona students statewide by 1990, and is spreading to other states. The program involves students from kindergarten through twelfth grades in the voting process.

"Prior to an election, students learn about the democratic process, how to become an informed voter, and the mechanics of registration and voting. During this period, homework assignments include having discussions with their families about pertinent campaign issues and the relative merits of different issues. On election day students accompany their parents to the polling place and cast simulated votes on the same candidates and ballot initiatives that their parents do. Results of these simulated ballots are not thrown away, but are tabulated and distributed to the press (though they do not count in the real election)" (Teixeira 178).

At the middle school and high school level, more sophisticated, comprehensive civic education efforts need to be developed, preferably on a standardized, national basis in order to achieve the maximum possible impact. A national, revamped civic education program could combine classroom instruction with voter registration made available to all high school seniors, in order to help people develop a habit of voting immediately upon becoming eligible.

Such a program model for high schools has already been developed by People For the American Way, and as of February, 1992 was in the process of implementation in six states, including Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, and North Carolina.

"First Vote was created to assist the educational system in becoming more effective in imparting the skills and knowledge of citizenship... There are three components to the program: a videotaped overview, a six-lesson teaching unit, and on-site voter registration for high school seniors. It was introduced in the Charlotte/Mecklenburg school system in October, 1991, and during its first presentation registered 400 students to vote" (LRC Appendix F-2).

Since early 1992 the North Carolina chapter of People For The American Way has been working with the N.C. League of Women Voters, the N.C. Bar Association and the N.C. Association of Classroom teachers to "develop a collaborative effort for statewide expansion" (LRC Appendix F-2).

Regarding the media, things will only change when corporate control of the U.S. mass media ends. Direct government control is also no answer to this problem. Only a new direction will provide true hope for returning the media to a mission of public service. There must be a third way. It will be difficult, but the media must be wrested away from for-profit, private interests and transformed into non-profit organizations, while remaining independent of government control.

One method would be to focus attention solely on broadcast media and newspapers. First, all existing television stations, cable systems, and big city newspapers could be nationalized. Legislation could be passed designating them non-profit, non-governmental organizations (NGO's). Next, additional legislation would be needed to institutionalize the provision of some levels of government funding to these new media organizations, but independent of government controls over staffing.

Advertising would be allowed to continue at moderate levels, and advertisers would continue to pay for it, (on television, at least, because advertisers need television), providing the media NGO's with additional revenue. The removal of the need to realize profits and the addition of government subsidies would go a long way towards alleviating advertiser influence over programming.

This is, admittedly, a radical scheme. Yet however it happens, the mass media must become a set of institutions dedicated to truly informing the U.S. public if our democracy is to survive.

D. Financing Of Elections

To break the stranglehold wealthy special interests have on our political system, the playing field of electoral competition must be leveled. The only two genuine ways to do this are (1) through the institution of campaign finance reform that includes public campaign financing legislation, and (2) mandating privately owned television stations to provide some amounts of free air time to competing political candidates. With regards to campaign finance reform, initial steps might be to reduce the amount of money PAC's can contribute to candidates from $5,000 in primary and general elections to $1,000 in each, and outlaw the ability of PAC's to act as collection points for the bundling of campaign contributions (Smith 259). Limited public financing of congressional elections should be provided in order to better even the odds between incumbents and challengers.

Washington Post political reporter Paul Taylor has suggested a novel way to legislate the provision of free media time to political candidates on the state and national levels. His proposal, labeled the "five minute fix" (Taylor 267-280), would mandate 5 minutes of broadcast time per night on every radio and television station in the nation be given to major presidential candidates in presidential years; at, say, 7:55 p.m., for the six weeks immediately preceding general elections. Each candidate would appear on alternating nights. The broadcast would air at 7:55 p.m. in each of the country's time zones, the only stipulation being the candidates themselves (or their running mates) have to appear each night, not their surrogates. An additional 5 minutes of air time would be given to state and local candidates, with each state's political parties deciding how to allocate the time. These broadcasts would also air at set times; for example, 7:50 p.m. in presidential years, and 7:55 p.m. in off-years.

Taylor's proposal is an innovative one, and represents a detailed, plausible method by which the allocation of free media time could function. However, it deserves modification. The goal of better informing citizens about issues could better be achieved if two competing voices were heard in each sitting, rather than having two candidates alternate from one night to the next. Ten minutes a night in free air time provided to each of the national and state political parties seems a small price to pay for revitalizing our democracy.

E. Structural Electoral Rules

Too-frequent elections

The first structural bias against broader participation rates is an overly frequent election schedule. How frequent is too frequent? To begin with, the terms for Congress (two years) and the Presidency (four years) are constitutionally mandated, and thus should be regarded as very resistant to change. The system of nominating candidates in partisan primary elections should also be considered fairly well entrenched, although there is still room for reform in some states, mostly Southern, which retain run-off primaries. These are remnants of the years when one-party control and black disfranchisement characterized the South (Piven and Cloward 75-76). One view says these "second primaries" still function to exclude minority candidates from gaining party nominations, while a competing argument is that they help ensure the nomination of only those candidates who can attract the sort of bi-racial or overwhelming white voting-bloc support necessary for political victory in today's South.

An optimal frequency might be if elections for all state and local offices were held only in conjunction with these national election cycles, i.e., once every two years. This would actually mean citizens would vote twice every two years, once to nominate candidates in a primary and again in a general election.


The second structural electoral bias to be addressed is the U.S. system of winner-take-all voting. One solution would be to institute a system of legislative proportional representation similar to what exists in Germany or the Netherlands. Single-member House of Representatives and state legislative districts could be abolished and replaced with multimember districts covering entire states or large subdivisions of states (Cossolotto 1991, 1992; and Amy 1992). This sort of system would not affect the U.S. Senate, since "it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to distribute the two-senator-per-state allocation on other than a winner-take-all basis." (Teixeira 152). However, the electoral college could be replaced with direct presidential election by popular vote.

Critics of proportional representation have long claimed:

"the entry of multiple parties into coalition governments...(under a system of proportional representation) probably depresses
countries with high multipartyism, voters are more likely to feel their votes have been diluted by the necessity to compromise with other
parties." (Teixeira 15-16).

The problem with this analysis is it forgets crucial differences between the U.S. and most parliamentary democracies. Here, the national government is controlled by the victorious party in separate presidential elections, not by the party with a congressional majority. This casts doubts on whether a U.S. system of congressional and state legislative proportional representation would decrease turnout.

However, introducing any sort of proportional representation into the U.S. electoral system has always been pronounced politically infeasible, mainly because it would cause "political disruption of unknown magnitude" (Teixeira 154). Furthermore, abolishing the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment.

Yet there is one electoral competition reform that could be instituted at national, state and local levels, used with equal effectiveness for Senate, House, and Presidential elections, but preserve both the electoral college and single-member Congressional and state legislative districts, thus causing a minimum of political disruption. This reform is known as majority preferential voting.

Used in Australia since the 1920s, and in New York City school board elections since the early 1970s (Dillon A10), majority preferential voting does not institute proportional representation. It does ensure voters' choices are more accurately reflected than they would be under a winner-take-all system of voting, while simultaneously guaranteeing winners will have majority support. So how does it work?

As former third-party presidential candidate John Anderson explained in a 1992 New York Times op-ed supporting this reform:

"Rather than simply vote for one candidate, voters rank candidates in order of preference, putting a 1 next to their first choice, a 2 next to
their second choice and so on until they no longer want to support any remaining candidate. After voting is completed, first choices are counted. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent, he or she wins. But if no candidate has a majority, the candidate with fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the ballots of voters who indicated that candidate as their first choice are redistributed to their second choices. This process continues until a candidate gains over 50 percent" (J. Anderson A25).

Benefits of preferential voting include cost savings from the abolishment of run-off elections it would facilitate. Run-offs would no longer be necessary to ensure candidates were elected with majority support. This would increase the likelihood of a high voter turnout in the determining election, since in run-offs, supporters of previously eliminated candidates often do not vote. It would also discourage negative campaigning and encourage a focus on issues rather than personal attacks, since candidates would be less likely to want to alienate other candidates' supporters whose second choice votes they may need. As we have seen, the rise of 30-second negative advertising is yet another factor contributing to popular alienation from politics, so this particular side effect of majority preferential voting would be a welcome one. Best of all, this reform would open up the two-party system to multiparty competition without the negative effects on participation (if any) associated with proportional representation.

Voter Registration

Finally, some remedies for the structural bias of personal voter registration requirements. This area represents the best hope for structural reform, partially because voter registration is less structural in nature than first-past-the-post voting or election frequency, and thus less resistant to change. Voter registration legislation is also a narrow area of public policy where the possibility of reform genuinely remains open, as evidenced by recent passage of the 1993 "Moter Voter" Act (Appendix X).

Agency-based voter registration

The provisions of the "Moter Voter" Act are a step in the right direction. Even beyond concerns about the effectiveness of its implementation, however, it will take time for any effects the bill does have to be felt on a national scale. Until then, there will remain a need for agency-based registration to be expanded to more government agencies.

"If people could register in the course of using services as diverse as welfare, Social Security, nutrition, employment, agriculture, education, and day care, the United States would have universalized access to the electoral system" (Piven and Cloward 246).

It is infeasible to propose that voter registration be provided at the counters of every public agency in the country, for reasons of costs and efficiency. Access to registration should exist, however, at several primary governmental agencies. As mandated under the terms of the "Moter Voter" Act, driver's license bureaus, welfare offices, disability agencies, and military recruitment centers are a good start. To this list I would add federal post offices, unemployment agencies, and public libraries, including those located on college campuses. On a regular basis, state and local election boards should be encouraged to conduct voter registration campaigns in other places where large numbers of people congregate, such as shopping malls.

Limited hours and locations where registration can occur

A further expansion of agency-based registration would solve this problem. However, reforms will still have to occur on the local level. The energies of local election boards must be re-directed away from restricting access to the electoral system and towards helping make it more inclusive for all citizens.

Inadequate public education and information campaigns

Federal funding could be made available for aggressive public education campaigns to inform people of the new, wider availability of voter registration. Public service announcements and advertisements would be created and widely disseminated on commercial radio and television. This would ensure that citizens are able to find out how to go about getting registered to vote.

Lack of automatic re-registration for voters who change addresses

This structural barrier could easily be removed if voter re-registration became automatic when people move. Since people almost always file change of address forms at their old post office, it would be a simple matter to carbonize this form and send the second copy to the state elections board.

"The vast majority of moves (83% in 1980-81) are within the same state. For intrastate movers who were registered already, the change of address notice could shift the registration from the old to the new address. If the movers were not registered, a mail registration form could be sent to the new address. If they were headed out of state, a notice could be sent to the state election board in the state of their destination" (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 569).

A bill (H.R. 1668) which would do just this was introduced in the House by Rep. Mel Levine (D-CA) in 1985. A similar measure (S. 1439) was offered in the Senate by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.). Its fate was unremarkable - "H.R. 1668 was unanimously reported by the Subcommittee on Postal Operations and Services in July 1985 and died in its parent Committee on Post Office and Civil Service" (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 572).

In the absence of such a nationwide remedy, college towns and universities could start living up to their responsibilities to take the needs of their student residents into account. Campus access to voter registration could be institutionalized, and other steps taken to create an atmosphere conducive to local political involvement by students. Universities and college towns are ideal environments to help spark creation of a renewed culture of political participation.

Linkage of jury duty lists to voter registration rolls

Despite its negative effects on voter registration rates, the linkage between jury duty lists and voter registration rolls has usually been justified on grounds of it being perfectly reasonable to ask citizens to perform an infrequent, limited civic duty such as serving jury duty in exchange for the privilege of voting (Hadley 72).

However, this argument ignores the fact that it is generally more difficult for lower income Americans to be granted time off from their jobs for jury duty, or for them to afford being able to do so. The situation is further complicated since the electorate is currently skewed more heavily towards upper class than lower class Americans (Piven and Cloward 4), and therefore, lower class underrepresentation on juries may also be a factor behind the U.S. legal system's bias against lower class defendants (Zinn 505-507).

The most obvious solution to this dilemma is to link jury duty lists to some other form of citizen rosters, such as driver's license records. In order to counter the upward class bias also inherent in these records, welfare rolls and unemployment benefit rolls could also be utilized. If we are serious about wanting to increase levels of citizen participation, we shouldn't be actively providing people with reasons not to vote.

Underfunded state election boards / Lack of fully computerized statewide registration systems

Federal funding could be channeled into an expansion and overhaul of state election boards. This would allow for the modernization of state election boards' computer systems and enable them to process registrations from the expanded networks of statewide registration sites. In addition to keeping track of within-state registration transfers, computerization would also facilitate more accurate efforts to keep registration rolls updated (i.e., free of voters who have moved out of state or died since last registering), since the "Moter Voter" Act has now outlawed purging citizens simply for not voting. This in turn would allow election boards to keep more accurate records regarding the true levels of voter registration in their jurisdictions and better focus any efforts designed to raise these rates.

Election day holidays

There is no clear consensus as to whether shifting election days to weekends or making them holidays would actually increase turnout (Teixeira 143). Evidence from states and municipalities that have experimented with such practices such as Cleveland, Ohio, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Texas, and Louisiana, suggests that turnout may actually decrease (NCR 80), perhaps because people are likely to want to take advantage of a rare day off from work! The most convincing argument against this type of reform is based on the high turnout rates of registered Americans (Appendix V), which shows that once people are registered, they tend to vote.

Election day holidays are designed to "improve the turnout of people who are already very likely to vote" (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 569), instead of reaching out to those Americans who are not registered.

However, it would make sense to uniformly lengthen polling hour closings on election days to 9:00 pm or 10:00 pm. Working Americans should be able to vote after work without having to stand in line for several hours, or miss voting because they couldn't get to the polls before 7:00 pm. A related reform involves systems of so-called early voting, introduced in Texas in 1991 and increasingly being implemented in other areas of the country. Early voting in Texas allows citizens to vote for 17 days prior to elections at special polling places in grocery stores, shopping malls and other public places instead of at their polling places on election day. So far, it has increased turnout in Texas slightly (Cooper and Christe 5).

Overly restrictive registration closing dates

In the past, thirty-day closing dates have been justified on the grounds that election workers need that much time to prepare accurate, updated precinct lists of all registered voters by election day. With the growing use of computers and high-speed database technology, these arguments are no longer as valid.

Voter registration deadlines in all fifty states could be set at one week before general elections. This would increase the registration time period for everyone, and ensure the participation of more citizens who decide to vote only in the weeks immediately before an election (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 568).

The logical extension of shortening registration closing dates is to allow election day registration (Gans 531). Four states currently do so: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and North Dakota, which has no voter registration (Appendix VII). A fifth, Oregon, experimented with the practice but discontinued it in the mid-1980's.

Voter turnouts in these four states are continually higher than in the U.S. as a whole (Appendix VIII). However, nationwide implementation of this reform should be considered politically infeasible for a number of reasons.

The most important is that such a measure might create opportunities for serious election fraud. Critics have pointed out that the absence of scandals to date in the four states with election day registration can be attributed in part to the "clean political culture" (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 568) that exists in these states, and other characteristics they share. "Election day registration has been adopted by four states with (already) relative high levels of voter turnout, relatively homogeneous populations, and low historical levels of voter fraud" (CSAE 595). Republicans were nearly able to block passage of the "Moter Voter" Act by raising fears about the levels of fraud its modest measures would create (McNeely 21A).

Opposition to any national election day registration legislation would certainly be more unyielding and find wider popular support, as it did the last time such legislation was proposed, by President Carter in 1977 (Teixeira 127). In order for any structural electoral reform to successfully increase participation rates, it must give people more, not less, faith in their ability to make a difference by voting. Reforms that might undermine further public confidence in the system by raising the specter of stolen elections would be vastly counterproductive.

Automatic voter registration along the lines of the European model is another possible answer. Yet this too should be seen as a solution "strongly against the grain of American political culture" (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 568). Whether implemented through government canvass, as done in Great Britain or Canada, or by adoption of a national voter I.D. card, it would undoubtedly face opposition on grounds that such a measure would violate civil liberties and privacy concerns.

Efforts to use social security numbers or census collection data for any purposes other than the narrow ones for which they were intended have always met with intense public opposition. During debate over immigration reform in the mid-1980s, Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-CA) summed up the political realities stacked against this type of measure when he commented that "I do not think that we should travel down the road that could lead toward national identification cards, not one foot, not one inch" (Wolfinger, Glass and Squire 572).

Another feature of some European voting systems that would not work well in America is the existence of compulsory voting laws. Americans' strong sense of individualism and dislike for overly intrusive government actions make this proposal politically infeasible. Again, the implementation of such laws in an attempt to increase citizen participation levels would be counterproductive. In order for participation to be meaningful, it cannot be forced. Americans should be free to choose not to vote, but the point of any voter registration reforms should be to ensure they are not being structurally encouraged to do so.

Projected Impact of Voter Registration Reforms

The effects on voter turnout of reforms involving increased civic education, public campaign financing laws, and most structural electoral changes would be difficult to quantify. This is primarily because little data exists for analysis.

For example, in Arizona, supporters of the "Kids Voting" program claim it increased participation in the 1990 off-year elections by 4%, which was the amount turnout increased that year compared with 1986. But there was also a controversial referendum (on the Martin Luther King holiday) on Arizona ballots that year, (Teixeira 179), and the program has been in existence for too limited a time to specify how much it contributed to the higher turnout. It has been broadly estimated that America's non-competitive electoral system (lack of third-party mobilization, winner-take-all voting) depresses turnout by 20% relative to other major democracies (Teixeira 23).

However, enough individual states have implemented various voter registration reforms over the past two decades to provide data for more detailed analysis of their effectiveness (Appendix VIII). Estimates of the increased turnout resulting from nationwide registration reform range from 7.6% (Wolfinger and Rosenstone 73), to 9.1% (Mitchell and Wlezien 13), to 14% (Powell 77). Despite its political infeasibility, most studies agree this option has the greatest potential to increase turnout. Some think it would likely account for 2/3 of any turnout boost due to voter registration reform (Appendix VIII).

Increasing the number of volunteer registrars in a state is estimated to raise turnout by 2.4% after four years, and 5.0% after eight (CSAE 598). "Motor voter" programs by themselves also increase turnout by some. They also have greater impact over time, increasing turnout by an estimated 1.0% after four years to 3.3% after eight (Appendix VIII). Michigan was the first state to implement "moter-voter" legislation, in 1975. In 1984 alone, drivers license bureaus recorded 266,273 new registrations and 505,888 address changes (Piven and Cloward 220). In 1988, 87.7% of Michigan's voting age population was registered to vote. That same year, presidential turnout in Michigan was 54%, compared with 50.2% nationally (LRC Report Appendix E-3).

Costs of Proposed Reforms

I have not focused extensively on the issue of costs in this paper because little quantitative data exists concerning the broader structural reforms I am advocating. But this is not true of voter registration reform. Registration reforms have been almost universally recognized as extremely cost efficient. The 1993 "Moter Voter" Act is expected to cost the states $200 million, but this figure mostly reflects the amount all would need to spend to fully computerize their registration systems (Ross 1). Other reforms outlined here would cost much less to implement.

Agency-based registration is one of the least expensive reform options. Michigan's "moter voter" program has estimated its costs at $0.17 per new voter. "There is no reason why costs should be greater in unemployment or welfare these rates, a state could register 500,000 people at a cost of less than $100,000" (Piven and Cloward 220, 234). Other measures are calculated to be similarly inexpensive. The N.C. Secretary of State's office estimated its annual needs for increased state funding of voting information and voter education programs (for a state voting-age population of just over five million) at $50,000 (LRC Report Appendix J-15), or just $.01 a voter! A 1992 proposal for election-day registration in North Carolina was projected to cost the state only $14,000 - the amount needed to hire two additional election workers to staff a central registration site in each county, paid $5 an hour for working a 14 hour day (LRC Report Appendix K-3). The average annual costs spent by North Carolina's state elections board to administer its "moter-voter" program are $3,500 spent printing forms and $7,200 in postage, a total of $10,700. (LRC Report Appendix I-5).

With costs as low as this, there is no reason not to move ahead with reforms that go as far as possible towards removing the barriers to fuller participation created by our country's system of personal voter registration equirements. By making it easier for people to register to vote, turnout figures can be increased (Appendix V, IX). True, only 104 million of the 190 million Americans eligible to vote did so in the 1992 presidential election. But only 2/3 of them (127 million) were even registered to vote. Viewed in this light, 1992 turnout of registered voters was 82%, a turnout level comparable to those in other industrialized democracies (Appendix IX).

Final Thoughts

The reforms I have outlined in this paper touch many areas of our society. If steps are taken towards implementing any of them - the provision of more focused civic education and objective information in schools and on television, enactment of public campaign financing laws, and structural electoral reform (less frequent election scheduling, the adoption of majority preferential voting, and liberalized voter registration procedures) - voter turnout and citizen participation will increase.

A more informed and active public will be better able to counter the influence special interests now exert on matters of public policy. Over time, this will lead to the election of lawmakers dedicated to represent the public interest before private interests.

We are supposedly a democracy, yet time and time again, decisions are made that only serve elite interests. Companies downsize and move their production lines overseas, enforcing continued Third World poverty while lowering living standards for U.S. workers. Education and social service budgets are slashed, but we continue to spend upwards of $260 billion a year on weapons of destruction. Only the wealthy or those who serve the interests of the wealthy can afford to run for office, so we're governed by an entire class of elected officials who aren't representing most Americans.

Returning to an earlier theme, today many people are confused. They look around them and see a nation and world spinning out of control, with mounting social problems and signs of moral, physical, and societal decay evident everywhere. To pierce this collective veil of confusion, we must honestly assess what events have brought us to this point and why. It is in this spirit that I have sought to draw attention to the factors hard at work creating mass political alienation and undermining American participatory democracy in the process.


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