with America on voting day
By Larry Eichel
Nov. 03, 2002
I don't consider it my job to offer
predictions about elections. But here's an easy one.
The usual number of people won't vote on Tuesday, millions and
millions of them. They won't find the time or summon the
Nonvoting is a tradition in this country, the ranks of the
stay-at-homes long-populated by the alienated, apathetic and disconnected.
Now, according to Harvard political scientist Thomas Patterson, we're seeing a
disturbing new group, the disenchanted, people who follow the news but are
disgusted by the practice of modern politics.
Which elevates the importance of the perennial question: What
can be done to get more people to vote?
Well-intentioned reformers have proposed numerous initiatives
aimed at reducing public cynicism about politics, among them campaign
finance reform and free air time for candidates. Such measures might help, if
In his new book, The Vanishing
Voter , Patterson suggests we'd
see higher turnout, even in mid-term elections, if we let would-be voters
register on Election Day, made it a holiday, kept polls open longer, had
fewer elections and shorter campaigns.
A set of more radical ideas is offered by
reformer Steven Hill in a volume titled Fixing Elections
. He accepts Patterson's general
assertion that candidates, consultants and the media have combined to create a
brutish electoral world in which a small number of swing voters get all
the attention and the multitudes get ignored.
But Hill says that the root cause of it all, the factor that
has allowed our politics to deteriorate, is something that's rarely talked
about: the winner-take-all system, as embodied in the Electoral College
and the single-seat districts through which we elect members of
Congress and most state legislators.
Hill claims that the system discourages voting in insidious
ways, by creating noncompetitive elections, overrepresenting majorities
and giving under-represented minorities little incentive to
And by "minorities," he doesn't mean just racial and ethnic
types. He's talking about partisan and ideological groups as well: Think
Republicans in Philadelphia, Democrats in Utah, and members of third and
fourth parties everywhere.
He warns that a system "based exclusively on where you live,
rather than what you think" will prove "increasingly disastrous in a
diverse, pluralistic society like ours."
His solution is to scrap the Electoral College and change the
system in ways that will let more people cast votes that affect outcomes. If
you doubt there's a problem, consider that only 10 percent of all House
districts are competitive this fall - due largely to the nature of the
Hill wants Congress and state legislatures to move to
multi-seat districts with cumulative or proportional voting.
How would it work? Say each district had three seats. You, the
voter, would be given three votes. In one version, you'd be able to cast all
three votes for your favorite candidate.
The effect would be to make it hard for one party to win all
the seats, thereby providing better representation of political diversity.
(New Jersey has two-seat Assembly districts but, with conventional voting,
the same party usually takes both.)
Getting serious consideration of such changes will be well-nigh
impossible. While there's nothing in the U.S. Constitution saying that
House members must be elected in single-member districts, there is a 1967 law
to that effect. In many states, including Pennsylvania, such a
requirement is part of the state constitution.
This idea of the multi-seat district is no panacea, and it may
strike some as downright un-democratic. It also doesn't do anything to
address the widespread feeling among the young that going to the polls is
something older people do.
Even so, it's an idea worth thinking about if you care, as I
do, about why so many Americans don't vote.
For years, I thought that low voter turnout wasn't that big a
deal. I embraced the notion that such behavior was, in part, evidence
of national contentment, the theory being that a lot of people don't vote
unless they're angry or worried.
By that logic, the contentment-shattering crisis that began on
Sept. 11, 2001, ought to have increased voter participation
significantly. But that didn't happen in the primaries; there's no sign it'll happen
We've got a real problem on our