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Counting the Non-Votes

by / May 6, 2001
"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment." -- Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977), former dean, Yale Law School; president, University of Chicago

There should be little doubt that the difficulties experienced in counting votes accurately and quickly in the recent elections raise some difficult and important questions for the future of our republic. However, the urgency of these questions -- for example, the December 12 and December 18 deadlines in the Electoral College process -- and the vehemence with which they have been debated may divert our attention from other issues that are even more important in the long term.

The first of these concerns the largest voting block in the presidential election: those eligible voters who didnt vote at all. That group amounted to about 50 percent of the total eligible voting population in 2000, which is about what its been in all presidential elections since 1971. Its even higher in non-presidential election years, averaging more than 60 percent for federal elections in the same period. In the earlier part of this century it was typical for less than 40 percent of eligible voters to stay home in presidential elections, and in the 1800s less than 20 percent failed to vote. This same 80 percent voter turnout level is still common today in most democratic nations, and in some, such as Germany and Japan, voter turnout usually approaches 90 percent.

Various studies have looked into why voter turnout has declined in the United States, and the results are not comforting. Surveys conducted by Harvards Vanishing Voter Project between November 14 and November 19 last year indicated that 60 percent to 70 percent of citizens were "discouraged" by what was happening in the campaign and that half of the public believes the election was "unfair" to voters. The study shows that 86 percent of citizens feel that "most politicians are pretty much willing to say whatever it takes to get themselves elected." Other polls by the Harvard project reveal that citizens are not only disinterested in elections but ill informed about candidates and issues as well.

The Important Question: Why?

"When 100 million people fail to vote in a presidential election ... the reason is more than simply apathy," wrote former presidential advisor John Dean in a recent FindLaw column. "To tag over half the voting population with indifference, unconcern, passivity, lethargy or simply laziness may describe behavior, but it doesnt explain it. And an explanation is needed, if one can be given for 100 million excuses."

It is possible that an all-out effort to register more voters is needed. Studies indicate that high percentages of registered voters do indeed vote. Perhaps mandatory registration would be desirable, or maybe even compulsory voting, wherein non-voters without legitimate excuses must pay fines, as is the case in Australia and Belgium.

Some pundits have suggested that a viable multi-party system is necessary to give voters a more meaningful choice than is now provided by the Democratic/Republican-dominated system, or if not that, a binding "none of the above" option on all ballots.

Revitalizing through Reform

If we dont know which of these reforms to invoke, it is because we havent given enough attention to the problem and to finding out the root causes of non-voting.

Rather than sweep the unpleasantness of the recent election under the rug, it is important that we face up to the problems it revealed: archaic or motley voting systems, citizen disenchantment and non-participation. We need to revitalize our democracy by reforming our elections.

As noted in the Encyclopedia Britannica article on electoral processes: "Elections ... serve to reinforce the stability and legitimacy of the political community in which they take place. Like national holidays commemorating common experiences, elections serve to link the members of a body politic to each other and thereby confirm the viability of the political community. By mobilizing masses of voters in a common act of governance, elections lend authority and legitimacy to the acts of those who wield power in the name of the people.

"Elections can also confirm the worth and dignity of the individual citizen as a human being. Whatever other needs he may have, participation in an election serves to gratify the voters sense of self-esteem and self-respect. It gives him an opportunity to have his say, and he can, through expressing partisanship and even through nonvoting, satisfy his sense of belonging to or alienation from the political community." (15th edition, Macropaedia Volume 6).

The corollary to this is that widespread alienation, expressed by nonvoting, reflects a growing frustration of this "profound human craving for personal fulfillment," which can be the death knell of our democracy. That is why we cannot ignore the broader issues revealed, not just in the 2000 election, but in the changing pattern of voter participation over the past century.