What If They Gave an Election... and Nobody Came?



Editor's Note:  This article originally appeared in the March 1988 issue of Memphis magazine.

Americans like to brag that ours is “the greatest democracy in the world.” Yet rarely do we back up our boast with votes. Our election turnouts are consistently the lowest in the Western world. In last November’s city elections, for example, only one out of every nine adult Memphians bothered to vote . . . think about it. Europeans marvel at our hypocrisy: we hardly even notice it. With Super Tuesday just around the corner, isn’t this the real issue the candidates should be addressing?

It was by any standards, a magnificent afternoon, one of those crystal-clear autumn days that Memphians take almost for granted — as just deserts, more or less, for the miseries of mid-summer.

It was also Election Day, Thursday, November 12th. But you couldn’t tell it by looking around Peabody Elementary School in the southern part of Midtown — official polling place for Ward 31, Precinct 1 — where voters were about as hard to find as clouds in the sky. Inside the school cafeteria, three automatic voting machines stood in silence, beyond two rows of long tables where a half-dozen veteran poll workers struggled to find ways to pass the time. “Business has been so, so slow,” said one white-haired lady with a chuckle. “When you finish voting, go back on the streets and drum us up some business!”

But “business” was bad all over the city that day, as the Memphis electorate performed what might be considered the greatest vanishing act in the city’s political history. Never before had so few of us exercised what the civic books like to call “the fundamental privilege of a democratic society.”

How bad was it? Well, at Peabody School, just about 130 souls out of a registered total of 1,345 braved the elements that day. That translates into a paltry 9.7 percent turnout. But the electoral trickle in Midtown might be considered a flood when compared to other wards and precincts around town.

Take what happened in South Memphis, at LaRose Elementary School (#13 – 1). Out of 1,720 registered voters, just 74 showed up, a 4.3 percent turnout. And even that miserable showing couldn’t match what happened out in Whitehaven at Gracewood Presbyterian Church (#78 - 3) where some kind of international record was probably set. Guinness take note: that precinct has 1,135 registered voters, of whom only 29 — 2.6 percent — cast a ballot in the November election. As one lone election official put it: “You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

In the end it was, quite simply, the worst recorded turnout in Memphis history. Just 13.9 percent of the city’s 371,644 registered voters — and only 11 percent of the voting-age population — made it to the polls. Sure, it was “only” a runoff election — an election in which only a couple of city council and school board seats were up for grabs. (Mayor Dick Hackett had won re–election easily in the “main” municipal election six weeks earlier.) Sure, it wasn’t the most dazzling campaign this city had ever seen. Still, when 90 percent of the eligible electorate doesn’t care enough to take five minutes to cast a ballot on a fine autumn day, one has to pause and wonder whether something isn’t gravely wrong with the state of grass roots democracy in this city.

The election was by no means an anomaly here in Memphis; it was only the most recent in a series of anemic turnouts that have increasingly bewildered election officials in Shelby County. The October 1987 mayoral election, for example, brought out only 35 percent of the voting-age population — the lowest turnout for a mayoral campaign since the inception of the new city charter in 1966. And the turnout in the 1986 gubernatorial election was only 33 percent in Shelby County — another record low. Says Gerald Gaia, one of the commissioners on the Shelby County Election Commission:  “It’s been surprisingly low, disappointingly low — and it’s getting worse. I just don’t know what the answer is.”

The figures across the state aren’t any more encouraging.  In the 1984 presidential election, Tennessee ranked 42nd in the nation in turnout, with only 49 percent of the voting age population showing up at the polls. That means that some 1.8 million Tennesseans of voting age stayed at home. And in the 1986 off-year election, the statewide turnout was much, much lower — a meager 33.9 percent.

Now Tennesseans — those few who bother to vote, that is — are gearing up for yet another election, the much-heralded Super Tuesday presidential primary to be held across the South on March 8th. Considering the amount of media hype accompanying the event, and the fact that Jesse Jackson and Tennessee Senator Albert Gore Jr. are among the candidates, there’s reason to hope for a respectable turnout (by Southern standards) this time. But even if only 25 percent of the eligible electorate turns out, as some experts have predicted, election officials will likely pronounce Super Tuesday a phenomenal success. And given the abysmal voting patterns that are customary this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, the actual figure on Super Tuesday could be even lower than that.

Still, this small slice of the population of one region will likely end up playing a pivotal role in nominating the next President of the  United States. And when November rolls around, still another small segment of the population — scarcely more than half the eligible voters nationwide — will make the final decision about who will occupy the highest office in the land.

THE RIGHT TO VOTE.

It is the fundamental act of a democratic society, the one inviolable right from which spring all our shopworn clichés about American freedom and liberty and justice. It is the subject of a thousand boring banquet speeches at Moose Lodges and PTA meetings each year. It is the kind of precious opportunity that drives millions in places like the Philippines to brave armored tanks and cordons of soldiers on election day.

“The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. But here in the United States it is increasingly apparent that the habit of vigilance has been replaced by apathy and disaffection.

 Two dry and relatively obscure studies released in Washington, D.C., this winter underscored a disturbing truth few people seem to realize: Americans are far and away the worst voters in the democratic world.  

 The first of these two studies, conducted by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, reported that the United States ranked last in voter turnout among the 28 Western Democracies in national elections from 1969 and 1986 — an embarrassing 24 point below the international average. That doesn’t mean somewhere in the back of the pack. That means dead last, lower than India, Spain, Columbia, and Turkey — indeed, lower that every other democracy on the globe.  

The CRS study showed that voter turnout throughout Canada, for example, is consistently about 75 percent; in Norway it’s 83 percent; in Australia, 95 percent. In the U.S., 53 percent.

The second of these studies, published in late December by the Washington-based Committee for the study of the American Electorate, makes an equally disturbing point: Not only is American voter appreciation currently the lowest in the democratic world, it appears to be declining, slowly but surely, with each election.   Turnout during presidential elections has dropped nearly 10 percentage points since 1960. And even in 1960, when national participation (62.8 percent) was at its highest level since the enactment of universal suffrage, the American voter turnout rate was still well below that  routinely seen in Europe. Through the 1984 presidential election saw a slight (0.5 percent) increase in turnout, the 1986 off-year election brought only 36 percent of the voting-age population to the polls — the third lowest figure in American history. In that election, some 112 million Americans didn’t vote, and nine states set new records for low participation. The decline in turnout is especially conspicuous among the young. In 1986, voter participation among those aged 18 to 24 was a glaringly low 16.6 percent, the poorest turnout in this age group since the minimum voting age was lowered to 18.

Analysts of the American electoral sysytem are especially puzzled by the fact that voter participation continues to drop in spite of trends which should be increasing turnout — trends such as the liberalization of registration laws, the general aging of the population, and the declining mobility of the baby-boom generation. Says Dr. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate: “The figures are, in and of themselves, both appalling and embarrassing. They serve to illustrate what may be a growing crisis for American democracy. The decline of voter participation is a harbinger of troubles beneath the surface of American politics.

“Our current election process is failing us miserably,” agrees U.S. Representative Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), the most vocal proponent for election reform on Capital Hill. “With a decline in voter participation, our democratic society is growing weaker while well-organized extremist and special interest groups are growing in power and influence. The United States is increasingly in danger of becoming a government of, for, and by the few.”

Admittedly, voter apathy isn’t the sexiest political issue under the sun — far from it. It can seem like some vast and distant abstraction; except on election days, you can’t exactly observe the phenomenon at work, nor can you feel it happening beneath your feet. It’s really more of a symptom than an illness, the kind of issue that ultimately raises a host of more serious questions about the failings of our society — failings in our electoral process, in our educational system, in our national media, and in the very nature of our political culture.

Still, the dangers of voter apathy can be real and present, indeed. For example: An anemic turnout almost invariably means that an election is more likely to be swayed by few well-mobilized special interest groups. It can also lead to situations in which a small, disciplined corps of crackpots on the political fringe can get themselves elected with relative ease. “High voter turnout does not guarantee better government,” conceded Curtis Gans. “But lower turnout enhances the power of the intensely interested few, and makes the country more susceptible to demagoguery and unaccountability.”

In the Illinois primary of 1986, two followers of extremist politician Lyndon LaRouche managed to win the Democratic nominations for secretary of state and lieutenant governor.  How? Seventy-nine percent of the eligible electorate didn’t bother to cast a ballot, that’s how. And of those few who did make it to the polls, many admitted that they voted for the LaRouchians simply because they fancied the Anglo-Saxon sound of their names.

 So much for eternal vigilance.

But when the founding fathers spoke of vigilance, they weren’t quite sure how far it was supposed to extend. Who should have the vote? From the very beginning, there was a tension between the patrician and egalitarian elements of American society, a tension that came to be reflected in the U.S. Constitution’s checks and balances. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists feared a tyranny of the majority as much as Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans feared a tyranny of the few. The Federalists wanted to keep power in the hands of the affluent, educated classes, and for two decades they got their wish. Throughout the late 1700s, property requirements effectively disenfranchised 95 percent of all American adults.  

So the United States was a kind of qualified democracy in those early days, a government of and by — if not for — the elite.

But then in the 1820s came the cry of universal manhood suffrage and the emergence of Jacksonian populism. As the electorate rapidly expanded, the country began to take on the cast of the boisterous young republic one sees in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — a crude, impetuous, but remarkably wide-open society. The election of Andrew Jackson symbolized the triumph of the common man; if anyone could be President, then anyone — so long as he was a white male, of course — could cast his vote.

From the 1820s until the late 1890s voter turnout in America was as high as it is in Europe today — roughly 75 percent of all eligible voters. But then the concept of voter registration came into vogue as a means of reducing election fraud, which at the time was running rampant in the political machines of America’s burgeoning cities. Voter registration did reduce the fraud, but it had another unintended effect as well — it reduced turnout.  

Of course, in the South reducing turnout was an intended effect of registration laws — specifically, barring blacks. The Southern states proved singularly resourceful in this regard.  Poll taxes, literacy requirements, and grandfather clauses were just a few of the notorious tricks to be found in Jim Crow’s bag. Today, black voter turnout remains significantly lower than the national average, and this holds true in both the North and the South; national turnout rates among blacks are consistently between 9 and 10 percentage points lower than among whites. The major U.S. city with the lowest voter turnout rates in the country is also the city that has the highest percentage of blacks: Washington, D.C. Here in Memphis, it’s not much better. In the last mayoral election, only about 29 percent of the voting-age black population cast a ballot — that’s about 13 percentage points lower than the white turnout.

Aside for racial politics, the other salient feature of the Southern electorate was the absolute supremacy of the Democratic party, which made November elections a mere formality all across Dixie. Everybody knew that the real election was the Democratic primary — so what was the use of showing up at the general election? Even today the South lags far behind the rest of the country in voter participation. For example, of the ten states with the worst turnouts in the 1984 presidential election, six were Southern.

There is, however a hint of change in the air. The emergence of the Republican party in the South in the last 20 years has begun to restore some degree of competiton, and that, in turn, has led to higher and higher turnouts in the not-so-solid South. The rise of the GOP has been closely paralleled by another trend across the South: the mass migration of Northerners to the Sunbelt. Well over 25 percent of Southern voting poulation now consists of transplanted Northerners who — most political analysts say — are much more likely to vote than native Southerners.

In this century, Congress has enacted changes in the voting laws that have expanded the size and altered the profile of the American electorate far beyond anything the Founding Fathers would have imagined possible, or even advisable — changes like women’s suffrage in 1920; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the minimum voting age to 18.  Yet even as the pool of eligible voters has swelled enormously, the percentage of voters who actually turn out has sharply declined.

One factor, however, has apparently remained constant:  educational level continues to be the principal determinant in voter turnout — more important that class, sex, or age.  Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone, in their widely quoted study, Who Votes?, found that people with a college degree are 38 percent more likely to vote than are with fewer than five years of schooling. They noted that college-educated people are, among other things, more skilled in the kinds of paperwork necessary to register to vote; that they are more inclined to follow political issues; and that they’re more likely to work in jobs in which there is peer pressure to vote. Whatever the explanation, turnout among college-educated voters in the U.S. is about the same as that in Europe: 75 percent.

Such findings go far in explaining low participation in cities like Memphis, where some 80,000 adults have less than 8 years of formal schooling. In Memphis, in fact, poor turnout rates closely parallel the high level of illiteracy.

In any event, whether it’s out of ignorance, indolence, or plain indifference, the inescapable truth is that people simply aren’t bothering to show up at the polls. To get a better sense of why, we interviewed dozens of national and local experts on the American electoral system — political scientists, election officials, demographers, journalists, and politicians. They gave widely different answers, but there was enough of a common thread that ran through there arguments — namely, that Americans no longer feel they have anything to gain by voting.  “I hate the term ‘voter apathy,’” says Curtis Gans. “That implies that there’s some sort of malaise out there that prevents people from going to the polls. Voting is ultimately a question of will. There are very definite reasons that people don’t do it.”

“Every rational man decides to vote as he makes all other decisions,” concurs Anthony Downs, author of An Economic Theory of Democracy. “If the return outweighs the costs, he votes; if not, he abstains.”

Given this kind of cost-benefit explanation of voter turnout, the one sure way to motivate would be for the United States to follow the lead of countries like Australia and Italy and make voting compulsory. In those countries, if you don’t vote, you get fined. With mandatory voting, we’d get a 90 percent turnout in every election, no sweat. But the notion of compulsory voting would never play in Peoria — nor should it. A democracy that makes its citizens vote is not a true democracy. As Gerald Gaia, of the Shelby County Election Commission, so succinctly puts it: “Don’t forget — people have a constitutional right not to vote.” And, as many of the experts we spoke to pointed out, there are often understandable reasons why they don’t. Such as:

  • Americans move around a lot. In fact, about one-sixth of the U.S. population moves each year. Mobility has a huge impact on voting: People almost invariably vote more often and more intelligently once they’ve settled down in a place.  Transients feel as though they have little at stake in their community, and, perhaps more importantly, they’re aware that they have little or no understanding of what the issues are.
  • By and large, Americans are doing pretty well right now.  People tend to vote when they are angry. Political pundit Morton Kondracke, a senior editor at The New Republic, suggests that low voter turnout may simply be an indication that the vast majority of people are fairly content with the way things are going. Give the country a depression or a war, he says, and you’ll see people scurrying to the polls in droves.
  • Politics bores a lot of people to tears. A number of the experts we spoke to raised the argument that increasing voter turnout will only usher in masses who are not by nature inclined to read and think responsibly about political issues. “People who consider voting more trouble than it is worth are likely to make the wrong sorts of choices, should they ever find themselves in a voting booth,” suggest Wolfinger and Rosenstone. Simple barriers to voting like registration, some say, serve to weed out the uninterested, the uneducated, and the uninvolved — leading to a kind of self-selecting electoral elite.
  • A lot of voters feel they have no impact on the outcome of elections. “People have simply lost faith in the efficacy of voting,” says Gans. Due in part to the increasing sophistication of the polls — the result of which are broadcast just prior to elections — a lot of people are moved to throw up their hands and say, “What’s the use?” This kind of fatalistic attitude was perhaps best illustrated in the 1984 election, when thousands of would-be voters on the West Coast decided to stay at home after CBS News declared Ronald Reagan the victor early in the evening. “When people perceive that an election is in the bag,” say Gerald Gais of the Shelby County Election Commission, “they are just going to spare themselves the trip.”
  • But all these explanations place blame for low voter turnouts on the individual. The experts say there are a number of cultural factors at work here, as well. Among them:
  • The parties have diminished in importance. The political parties aren’t able to command anything like the same degree of loyalty they had 20 years ago. In many areas of the country — the old “Solid South,” for example, and cities like Boston and Chicago — it was once considered something of a travesty for one not to vote a straight Democratic ticket. Like the Yellow Dog Democrats of the South (who, the saying went, would just as soon vote for a yellow dog as a Republican), people used to be committed more to their party than to the individual candidates. But the primaries, combined with the expanded role of television, have largely eliminated the chief function which the parties have always served: nominating candidates. Now, it’s increasingly possible for a candidate to ignore his party altogether — witness Gary Hart — and instead take his campaign directly to the people via television. “Parties don’t really mean anything anymore,” says Royce Crocker, a noted political scientist with the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. “They just don’t have a meaningful role in our election system.”

In contrast, Crocker notes, the political parties in Europe are much more ideological and distinct. “European parties are more tightly woven into the social fabric of their cultures, often reflecting deep religious or class differences, he says.  “These kinds of ties inspire a sense of party loyalty which manifests itself in higher turnout at the polls.”

  • Fewer and fewer people read newspapers. The decline of the American newspaper has also led to a decline in the national debate, the experts say. Afternoon newspapers (like the old Press-Scimitar) have folded across the country, and one of the consequences has been that readers are exposed to a narrower range of political coverage and opinion.
  • What has filled the void created by the lack of newspapers? Television, of course. But network television, with its built-in time constraints, has increasingly reduced politics to and entertainment spectacle. Political issues routinely get trivialized while personalities and egos — the reporters’ as well as the candidates’ — often overshadow matters of substance.  In 1988, for example, the burning campaign issue so far seems to be whether George Bush or Dan Rather won their “debate.”
  • No wonder voters are turned off.
  • The American electorate is ethnically fractured. The rich ethnic and cultural diversity of the United States, Royce Crocker suggests, may have a negative effect on voter tunout.  European countries, he notes, have a sense of shared cultural identity that is much keener than we could ever have in a society as fiercely pluralistic as ours. This feeling of communal destiny — of belonging to a single ethnic culture that transcends the present-day government — often seems to translate into a higher and more universal commitment to the political process. All of which might help explain why Minnesota, where most of the white population is of Scandinavian or eastern European descent, consistently chalks up the highest voter turnout in the U.S. Says Grace Haukoos of the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office: “There is a historic pattern of participation among these groups. It goes all the way back to Europe.”

But even in Minnesota, Haukoos notes, turnouts are declining with each election, and officials there have joined their counterparts across the country in casting about for new ways to lure voters to the polls.

Actually, there’s not anything anyone can do, short of coercion, to change the personal and cultural reasons why people don’t vote. But there are some pretty glaring weaknesses in our electoral system that we might take a look at. In Washington, a growing number of politicians and political scientists have been doing just that in recent years. Here are a few of the electoral reforms currently being debated on Capitol Hill.

Change Election-Day to Sunday. U.S. Representative Mario Biaggi (D–N.Y.) has introduced a bill that calls for moving national elections to Sundays to increase voter turnout. Biaggi notes that of the 28 industrial democracies, 17 vote on Sunday. Holding elections on Sundays does seem to make a tremendous difference in turnout. The democracies that hold elections on non-workdays have an average turnout rate of 88.28 percent, as opposed to 77.07 percent for those countries which vote on workdays.  Biaggi’s bill proposes that national elections be held over a 24-hour period from 3 p.m. EST Sunday to 3 p.m. EST Monday, with polls closing simultaneously form coast to coast.  Aside from increasing turnout, holding elections on Sundays will offer other advantages, Biaggi contends — such as eliminating long lines at the polls in the mornings and evenings, saving energy by making it easier for families to ride to the polls together, and increasing the number of volunteers available to work at the polls. 

Simplify the registration process. A lot of Americans don’t vote, it seems, because they find registration procedures too onerous. Many states have lengthy residency requirements and early closing dates of registration before election-day.  Some states are quick to purge your name form the voting rolls if you happen to skip an election. And a few states still have dual registration — separate procedures for voting in county and municipal elections. “Almost every other country in the world has some form of automatic voter registration,” notes Curtis Gans. “But the presence of registration requirements in the U.S. makes ours the only democracy in the world in which voting is a two-step act.  No one in this country is quite prepared to adopt the European system of automatic registration, which relies on a number of features — comprehensive lists of all names and addresses, for example, and a national ID card — that might strike Americans as downright Orwellian. Still, there are lots of other, less intrusive ways in which registration could be made easier. One is the so-called “motor voter” plan — currently in place, appropriately enough, in Michigan — which simply involves allowing the  people to register to vote at the same time that they apply for their driver’s license. While this would be of no use to the mass of 16-year-olds who are licensed to drive, it would certainly be a welcome convenience to millions of the 18-and-over population who move from state to state each year.

Senator Alan Cranston (D–Cal.) has proposed a sweeping piece of legislation which calls for, among other things, instituting election-day registration in all 50 states. The idea is to eliminate the closing period before registration — one of the biggest obstacles to voting — and allow people to register at the polling-site on election-day.

There are many strong arguments in favor of election-day registration. The committee for the Study of the American Electorate estimates that if all 50 states enacted election-day registration, voter turnout would increase by some six million people nationwide. The four states that already have this system in place — Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Maine — consistently have turnouts between 9 and 18 percentage points higher than the national average. Nor have these states seen any appreciable increase in election fraud, which is the hazard most frequently cited by critics of election-day registration. “The big question with same-day registration is, ‘Can it be administered without fraud?’” says Kimball Brace of the Washington-based Election Data Services, Inc. “That depends on where you happen to be. In Minnesota, yes; In Chicago, maybe not.”

The editors of The New Republic have come up with a intriguingly simple way to combat election fraud. Their proposal:  Simply make people, upon voting, dip their thumbs in indelible ink, like the kind often used at high school proms. Not only would this keep people from voting twice, it also might get them to take voting more seriously. “A blue thumb on election day would be a badge of pride,” The New Republic argues, “a sign that its owner had participated in the key civic sacrament of democracy.”

Hold fewer elections on fewer days. Those who’ve studied this issue say voter turnout would also increase if the local, state, and federal levels would simply coordinate their elections a little better. Ours is a quilt-crazy system of separately organized national, state, county, and municipal elections, many of which fall on different days in different months and in different years. And then, there’s the confusing array of primaries, bond issues, and referendums which in some states muddy the election calendar even further.

Attempting to clear up some of the confusion, some states have passed legislation that calls for consolidating elections — that is, scheduling local and statewide elections so they fall whenever possible, on a national polling day. This points to a curious irony about voter turnout: People vote in presidential elections with far greater regularity than they do in state and local ones, even though, as most experts agree, the local contests almost invariably end up having more direct impact on people’s lives. Local officials, after all, are the ones who largely determine the tax rate — and, therefore, the quality of such fundamentals as roads, police protection, and schools. “Voters perceive the presidential elections as affecting their pocketbooks and their lives more than a local mayoral race,” says Shelby County Election Commissioner Gerald Gaia.  “But that just isn’t so.”

Realizing this fact of human nature, election officials in the state of Washington have found a novel way to increase voter participation in certain kinds of local elections, especially initiatives and referendums. Their idea: mail-in voting. It works in much the same way absentee voting is handled in Tennessee: Ballots are simply mailed to registered voters, who then fill them in and return them to the Election Commission by a designated date. Not only is Washington’s mail-in system cheaper and simpler than holding on-site elections, it has, in some cases raised the participation level as high as 80 percent.

If the United States were to enact all of these reforms in the electoral system — Sunday Voting, nationwide election-day registration, and consolidated elections — even the most sanguine analysts say voter turnout in this country would increase by about 9 to 10 percentage points. This would leave our turnout rate still well below that in Europe. Still, it would at least be a start in the right direction.

Indeed, the notion of increasing voter turnout might seem to be one of those apple pie propositions, like building better roads, which no red-blooded citizen could possibly oppose.  What — except driving a car, perhaps — could be more essentially American than voting? Isn’t it in everybody’s interest to improve election returns?

But recent attempts at reforming the electoral system to increase voter turnout have been soundly defeated on Capitol Hill. In the 1970s, a number of bills calling for a national system of postcard registration died in Congress, as did president Carter’s initiative to implement election-day registration in all states. Who has opposed these bills? Generally, it has been a coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats who, though professing concerns about fraud, may ultimately have feared that the reforms in question would flood the electorate with newly registered blue-collar workers and blacks who would be inclined to vote for liberal Democrats.  Conservative columnist James Kilpatrick, for example, called Carter’s election-day registration proposal “a political power play as brazen as any stunt ever pulled in the bad old days of Tammany Hall. . . . Carter’s ulterior motive is to benefit the Democratic party.”
In the 1970s there was ample evidence to support Kilpatrick’s claim — the Democrats indeed were most likely to reap the immediate benefits of an expanded electorate. But today it is no longer clear which party would stand to gain from the increase in voters that would result from simplifying the registration process. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that unregistered Americans were actually more likely to say that they would vote Republican this November; and in the same poll, the group of voters with the lowest turnout rate in America — those aged 18 to 24 — displayed extremely strong leanings toward the Republican party.

Aside from these partisan concerns about expanding the electorate, there is a natural inertia on Capitol Hill that stymies electoral reform of any kind — the inertia that grows out of incumbency. Fact is, legislators from both parties are reluctant to tinker with the very system that got them elected. Since increasing voter turnout might well have unfavorable results back in their home constituencies, many congressmen shy away from electoral reform altogether.

Whatever the reasons, it appears unlikely that the Cranston or Biaggi bills will make any headway in Congress during 1988 — especially since it’s an election year.  Prognosticators expect the turnout to drop again this November, and if current trends continue, we can expect to see voter participation down around 45 percent nationwide by the turn of the century.

It’s not the sort of statistic that hurls itself at you, but then subtlety is its best weapon. The erosion of the American electorate, like that of the soil, happens so slowly you can hardly see it. “The death of democracy,” wrote the late Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, “is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

Not a bad sentiment to take with you to the polls on Super Tuesday.

This article originally appeared in the March 1988 issue of Memphis magazine.

Add your comment: