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Cleveland Plain Dealer

Voters are electing to stay home
By Tom Brazaitis
October 6, 2002

Non-news flash: Another record-low turn out is expected for the Nov. 5 election despite the fact that control of the Senate and the House of Representatives are at stake. The Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate says that the turnout in this year's primaries nationwide amounted to 17 percent of those old enough to vote, barely an improvement on the record-low 16.8 percent registered in 1998.

"It is obvious that nothing has fundamentally changed in the pattern of very low voter participation in American political life," said Curtis Gans, an expert on voting patterns. "The events of Sept. 11, 2001, or the rekindling of those sentiments in 2002 may have helped boost patriotic fervor, but that did not carry over into political participation."

If you're curious why more and more Americans are voting less and less, pick up a copy of the book "Fixing Elections" by Steven Hill. It is an eye-opener for anyone who still believes in such myths as "one person, one vote" and "majority rules."

"Voter turnout in the world's lone remaining superpower has lurched to 138th in the world - sandwiched between Botswana and Chad," Hill says.

Despite well-meaning measures like the Voting Rights Act, campaign finance reform, term limits, easier registration, mail-in ballots and flexible polling hours, turnout over the last 40 years has declined steadily.


Hill, co-founder of the Center for Voting and Democracy ( lays most of the blame on a fundamental flaw: America's winner-take-all voting system. As Hill superbly demonstrates, winner-take-all is 18th-century voting technology for the 21st century.

Take the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush in the voting nationwide, but lost the election. He lost in the Electoral College, a winner-take-all mechanism.

In Florida, the two were virtually tied in the balloting, give or take a hanging chad, yet Bush got all of the state's electoral votes. If electoral votes had been doled out state by state in proportion to each candidate's votes, Gore would have been elected.

Neither candidate got a majority of votes in the nation as a whole or in Florida and many other states, including Ohio. What if there had been an "instant runoff" ballot in every state, where voters picked their first, second and third choices among the candidates?

If no one got a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes, say Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader, would have been eliminated and his second-choice votes distributed among the remaining candidates. This process would continue until one candidate got a majority.

Such a system would allow citizens to vote their hopes instead of their fears. A voter could cast a ballot for a Nader, a Buchanan or a Ross Perot, comfortable in the knowledge that if his candidate did not win, his vote would not have been wasted because of the second-choice feature.

(In case you're thinking that I still can't get over the fact that the election was stolen from Gore, let me remind you that the current system also works to the detriment of Republicans whose vote totals are diminished by third-party candidates.)

In congressional and state legislative elections, the winners are picked not by the voters but by the politicians themselves by the way they shape the districts every 10 years following the census. Districts are designed so that most, if not all, guarantee the election and re-election of one party's candidate.

That is why, out of 435 House seats up for grabs this year, only about 40 can be said to be truly competitive, where there is some doubt about which party will prevail. Incumbents (or the incumbent party in districts where there is no actual office-holder) will win 98 percent or more of the seats, as usual.

Hill's proposed remedy is multicandidate districts. In a four-candidate district, for instance, it would take only 25 percent of the total vote to win a seat. That would open the door to third-party and minority candidates.

At the very least, Hill says, redistricting ought to be taken out of the hands of the politicians who benefit from the process and turned over to an independent commission following strict guidelines that include keeping counties whole within the congressional districts.

As citizens become aware of the flaws in the voting system that have made "orphaned voters" out of millions of Americans, they might show their displeasure by boycotting the ballot box. But then, they're already doing that.

Brazaitis is a senior editor in The Plain Dealer's Washington bureau.

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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