Fewer Americans Vote Than Ever, but There Are Some Clear Remedies

Derek Shearer is director of public policy at Occidental College and co-author of "A New Social Contract: The Economy and Government After Reagan" (Harper & Row)

President Reagan likes to refer to the United States as a "city on a hill"--a model of a democratic society for others to emulate. Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the operation--and one of the most serious is the low level of participation in elections by Americans.

In the 1986 election, only 37% of eligible Americans actually cast ballots. More than 100 million did not participate in choosing a President in 1984. In voting for legislative representatives, the United States is in last place among Western democratic nations; for presidential races America ranks second to the bottom.

The added bad news is that the trend is getting worse. The 1986 election had the lowest voter turnout since 1942; turnout has declined by 20% since 1960. Among voters from 18 to 24 years old, ony 16.6% cast ballots in 1960. In California, non-voters have become the majority--and the state ranks 41st in turnout as a percentage of voting-age population.

One explanation for the low level of U.S. voter turnout is that people are happy with the current state of affairs and see no need to concern themselves with politics; another is that many people are so alienated they see no hope of affecting public affairs and abstain from voting out of despair or cynicism. Neither portrait of Americans--contented sheep or apathetic cynics--is very flattering. Fortunately, neither is entirely accurate.

Many factors have contributed to a decline in U.S. voting: the shift of population to suburbs and the weakening of the party system; the rise of TV-based campaigning, which can induce passivity, and the tweedledum-tweedledee non-choice between many candidates for public office. The double shocks of Vietnam and Watergate have also had demoralizing effects.

However, it turns out that when Americans are registered to vote, they cast ballots in percentages not too different from citizens in other Western democracies. The significant fact is that we are the only country where the entire burden of registration falls on the individual rather than on the government. Only in the United States is voting a two-step, individually initiated process: First you have to register to vote, and then you are allowed to vote. In most other Western democracies, voter registration is automatic and done by the central government. In a few others--England and Canada--before every election the government undertakes a universal voter enrollment by canvass.

Our registration process makes voting more difficult and effectively acts as a means test. Those who are better educated and of higher economic status find it easier to register. As a result, the non-voting population is class-skewed. Those at the bottom of society--the poor, minorities, renters, unemployed--are less likely to be registered to vote, and as a consequence are underrepresented. People whose interests go unattended for a long time often turn to non-democratic ways of expressing their concerns--crime, riots, drug use and other asocial behavior.

While the non-voter situation is a large blot on our democratic record, the good news is that changes in the registration system appear to be at hand. Efforts to increase registration and turnout are being made at the city, state and federal levels where new organizations have arisen to push for reforms that make it easier to register and to vote. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) is sponsoring a universal voter registration act--the most serious national effort at voting reform in almost a decade.

There are ways that voter participation might be significantly increased:

-- Election Day registration. Since the mid-1970s, three states--Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin--have allowed voter registration on the day of an election. Unregistered eligible citizens can go to the polls, sign a sworn statement, present identification and vote. This system has operated without any instances of fraud--and voters have turned out at 15%-20% higher levels than the rest of the United States. Cranston's bill would provide for Election Day registration of voters in all federal elections. In California, Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego) has introduced a bill mandating Election Day registration.

-- Department of Motor Vehicle registration. Three states currently register people to vote when they get licenses to drive. In Colorado, people can register to vote on the same form as they register to drive. In California, Assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Oakland) has introduced a bill providing for DMV to provide postcard registration forms to all driver's license applicants.(But Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a similar "motor voter" bill last year, saying it was not DMV's job to register voters.)

-- Registration outreach. Many cities and states are increasing the number of voter registrars by deputizing employees in public agencies to register voters in unemployment offices, welfare agencies, libraries and other government offices. The Cranston bill would allow mail-in registration for federal elections and provide grants for states to fund aggressive voter-outreach programs. A related bill by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) would require the U.S. Postal Service to provide local registrars with copies of change-of-address notices, to register voters automatically at their new address.

-- Registering young voters. Once young voters are registered, they vote at the same rate as their elders--but the registration rates are disastrously low, especially among minority youth. For example, 80% of new 18-year-old Latinos aren't registered to vote. There are some potential remedies: 18-year-old males could be registered to vote at the same time they register for the draft; DMV registration would pick up many young drivers. Most important, civic education in schools should be improved by stressing the relevance of electoral participation in a democratic society.

-- Consolidating elections . Many experts feel there are too many elections. Turnouts in odd-year municipal and country elections are usually far lower than in general elections. Less than 10% or 15% of eligible voters go to the polls in many local California elections. One remedy is to consolidate local and county elections with state and national voting. Such a reform, which requires a local charter amendment in many California cities, has been enacted in Santa Monica and Berkeley, where city elections were moved to November of even years. Turnout has jumped 20%.

Such consolidation also increases partisanship--even in technically nonpartisan local races. Contested races with clear partisan differences between candidates usually generate greater voter interest and higher turnout. One of the reasons for higher voter turnout in Western European countries is that they have stronger, more clearly differentiated parties and highly partisan local elections.

Voting is a basic right and it is the responsibility of democratic government to make it as easy and convenient as possible. Enacting voting-law reforms will not change American society overnight--increasing the opportunity to vote does not automatically generate the will to vote--nor will increased voter participation automatically favor one party over the other, but as those who are underrepresented in the political system increase their participation, the political process will become more responsive and more legitimate.

If we are truly to be "a city on a hill" to which other nations look for inspiration, then we must take democracy at home more seriously and include all Americans in the system.

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