Roll Call

Democracy Y2K Hasn't Hit Yet: Congress Must Take Steps to Improve Voter Turnout Before the Next Election Arrives
by Matthew Cossolotto
April 10, 2000

We seem to have escaped the economic Y2K problem relatively unscathed. But don't get too comfortable. A 'Democracy Y2K' crisis looms ahead.

As we limp toward our first presidential and Congressional elections in the new millennium, Congress should launch a wide-ranging debate -- under the auspices of a blue-ribbon commission -- on ways to reinvigorate our democracy and stimulate greater public participation and confidence in our political system.

But Congress should be aware that any in depth, nonpartisan and open-minded attempt to jump-start pro-democracy reforms could lead to significant changes in the way Congress conducts business. Politics as usual should be be business as usual in the 21st century.

You don't need a doctorate in political science to know that our democratic institutions are in deep trouble. For a number of decades now, our democracy has been buckling under the weight of unprecedented voter cynicism and apathy.

Public opinion polls and other studies consistently show a steady, decades-long decline in public trust in government. One symptom of this mistrust is the sharp drop in voter turnout over the years. In 1998, only 36 percent of eligible voters actually cast ballots, the lowest turnout for a midterm election in over 50 years. Only 49% voted in 1996, the lowest voter participation rate in a presidential election in 70 years.

If you examine voter turnout for off-year, local elections -- typically in the anemic 5% to 10% range -- our democracy seems to be in the throes of a near-death experience.

As we approach the upcoming Y2K elections, one of our explicit goals should be to raise the bar on voter turnout. We should aim for a new benchmark of heightened voter participation and enthusiasm for democracy in action. Voting is an important civic duty, not unlike participating in a local blood drive or the United Way campaign.

The definition of good citizenship should include active participation in the electoral process. And Congress itself holds a number of keys to increasing turnout.

What can be done? Here's a short list of steps that are well within Congress' powers to initiate:

  • Form a broadly representative, nonpartisan national commission - as alluded to above - to consider a full range of pro-democracy reforms. Even if its findings are not issued in time to produce real changes before the Y2k elections the mere act of forming a pro-democracy omission will have a salutary effect on public perceptions. One pace the commission should start is to examine what other countries do to achieve voter turnout rates of 80 to 90 percent.
  • Change our campaign finance laws that perpetuate the widespread impression that campaign contributors with deep pockets call the shots in Washington. This only serves to feed the public's distrust of politics as usual and dampens the participation levels.
  • Change from voting on Tuesdays to voting on the weekend. This should be simple enough. Some other countries with high turnout rates vote on weekends. It seems odd in this modern era that we're saddled with voting on Tuesdays. What's so magical about Tuesday?

Voting on a workday might have been fine in the early days of the republic when most voters were landowners with flexible schedules, particularly after the fall harvest in November. But the electorate and our society in general have changed dramatically since the end of the 18th century. Why shouldn't we strive to make voting more convenient for voters, especially for those who have work on Tuesdays and who may not have adequate childcare or transportation.

  • Make Election Day a national holiday. If we insist on Tuesday voting, why not make it a holiday? Give everyone a day off to go vote. What's wrong with that? Not only could such a holiday stimulate voter turnout, it would also serve as a constant reminder that our society puts a positive value on elections - and on the participation of each and every voter in the electoral process.
  • Give companies a tax break for employees who take Election Day leave to vote. If we're not ready for an Election Day holiday, why not pass a law that give individuals the right to take Election Day off for the purpose of voting?

Such a law would be similar to the parental leave bill that president Clinton signed into law in 1993. Citizens who want to take the time and trouble to vote should be encouraged to do so.

It should be a simple matter to develop some kind of "proof of voting" stamp or voucher for employees to show their employers. By passing an Election Day leave law, we would send a strong, pro-democracy message to all citizens.

  • Vigorously explore "vote by mail" reforms and Internet voting. Of course, issues related to fraud need to be addressed. But if we can solve credit card problems in order to stimulate electronic commerce, surly we should devote the time, energy, and technological know-how required to stimulate our democracy through the Internet.
  • Increase the size of the House of Representatives. This may surprise some people. But if you think about it, there's really nothing special about the number 435. In fact, it's completely arbitrary. We've had 435 Members of the House since 1912, when our national population hovered around 100 million, roughly a third of what it is today.

With well more than 600,000 people per House Member, our per capita representation rate has simply not kept up with the "inflation" rate of a growing population. The result is considerably more people per representative.

Most other mature democracies, with much smaller populations, have lower houses of parliament that number 600 members and more. More representatives per capita could help reduce the sense of distance and alienation the public feels toward Congress.

  • Finally, re-examine our traditional winner-take-all voting system. Many of the world's mature democracies with extremely high voter participation rates have opted for some variation on proportional voting methods. We should be willing to explore the full range of alternative voting systems as part of our effort to step boldly into the new millennium with a healthier, more vibrant democracy.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of possible reforms Congress should consider to stimulate voter participation. But congress should not dawdle. The Y2K elections are just around the corner.

The alternative is to continue to limp along, slouching into the new millennium under the weight of a cynical, apathetic, and disconnected electorate.

It won't be easy to turn things around. Real reform never is. But continuing the status quo is not an option. Congress-and American democracy-can do better.

Matthew Cossolotto, a former congressional aide for Rep. Jim Wright, is the author of the Almanac of European Politics. Founding president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, he now is its vice-president. The Center is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to educating the public about the benefits of alternative voting systems, .