THE VANISHING VOTER: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, By
Thomas E. Patterson, Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp.,
By Micah L. Sifry
October 6, 2002
Does your vote matter? After the intensely
close presidential election of
2000, some people might be
inclined to say yes. Others, noting how the
on the Supreme Court aborted Florida's vote-counting
would argue otherwise.
Does your vote matter in the
presidential primaries? The candidate who wins
primary--the invisible money chase that takes place before
voting occurs--has gone on to win his party's nomination
every year since
1984. So unless you live in Iowa or
New Hampshire, the states where the
first two votes are held,
your franchise means little during the
Should we keep our
archaic winner-take-all method of doling out representation, which
disenfranchises tens of millions of voters consigned by
gerrymandering to live in districts where their parties can never
win? Should we keep forcing voters to choose between the lesser of
two evils, or should we experiment with preference voting and
instant runoffs, which are prevalent in Ireland, France, Australia
and elsewhere overseas, and which eliminate the spoiler problem? Why
are younger, less educated and working-class people more likely to
believe that there are no significant differences between the two
major parties, and thus less reason to bother voting? Who benefits
from the system now in place, and what will it take to force them to change it?
E. Patterson's thought-provoking "The Vanishing Voter"
wrestle with any of these issues. Instead, he confines
himself to a much
narrower question about the presidential
selection process surrounding the
2000 election: "What draws
people to the campaign and what keeps
Patterson's research, which involved weekly
polls from November 1999
through the post-election mess,
confirms what we already know: Voters are turned
off by "too
much money, too much theater, too much fighting and too
deception." The process, he writes, "starts way too early
and lasts far too
long ... provides too many dull stretches and
too few high points, and ...
holds out opportunities that often
turn out empty."
To fix it, Patterson calls on the parties to
shorten the campaign and give
voters of every state a more
meaningful vote, ideally by holding a series
primaries in the late spring and concluding the process with
giant "Ultimate Tuesday" national primary a month later. He
also calls on
the networks to increase their prime-time coverage
of the candidates and
admonishes the political press to spend
less time hyping minor gaffes, the
horse race and
their own pontifications. Finally, he urges elected officials to
adopt some useful reforms, like election day voter registration
(which has significantly boosted turnout in the six states that have
it, and which Californians will vote on in
Patterson's findings, however, suggest that even
rejiggering of the process will not be
enough to bridge the chasm between
average voters and the
electoral industrial complex.
Consider these nuggets from his
* At the start of
2000, two-thirds of the public had no idea which candidates they
supported, contrary to the drumbeat of media polls claiming this or
that candidate was the front-runner (this is because the media polls
forced people to choose between named candidates, while Patterson's
polls allowed voters
to say they hadn't made a firm choice).
* Despite heavy news
coverage, half the public didn't know that Arizona Sen.
McCain beat George W. Bush in New Hampshire. People were so turned
race that "by the first convention in 2000 ... 80% had no idea it
about to begin," Patterson reports.
More people watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 than watched
Bush-Gore debates of 2000, even though there were 100 million
* By election day,
after more than a year of campaigning and nearly a billion dollars
spent, a majority of those surveyed by Patterson flunked a series of
12 questions seeking to ascertain whether they knew the candidates'
positions on prime issues like gun registration, defense spending,
tax cuts, abortion, school vouchers, prescription drug coverage,
offshore oil drilling and affirmative
"The gap between the
practitioner and the citizen--despite the intimacy of television and the immediacy of
polling--has arguably never been greater,"
Patterson writes. "The world occupied by the
hundreds at the top and the world populated by the millions at the
bottom still overlap at points, but they do so less satisfactorily
than before. The juice has been squeezed out of elections."
But it's not just the
juice that's gone; the essence of self-government has been
eliminated. We the people don't rule ourselves. Big campaign
contributors, big-foot journalists, political incumbents and party
leaders set the terms by which the rest of us live. And so people
ask themselves why they should bother voting. Today, thanks to the
Voting Rights Act and the motor-voter law, most of the legal
barriers to individual voter participation have been cleared away.
(Though, Patterson reports, America still disenfranchises a stunning
10% of its population, compared with just 2% in the United Kingdom,
by taking away ex-felons' voting rights and prohibiting legal aliens from voting). Education levels,
of citizen involvement, are up, and beginning
with the 1960s, women have been turning out at the same pace as
all this, voting--the basic act of citizenship--is slowly dying in
America. Despite the closeness of the race, only 55% of all eligible
adults voted in the presidential election of 2000, compared to 70%
in 1960. In off-year elections, only about one-third vote. Voting
rates of 10% or less are commonplace in many congressional
primaries, and single-digit percentages are no longer a rarity. Most
ominous for the future are turnout rates among people younger than 30, which
barely hit 30% in 2000.
Would politics be any different if more people
voted? Yes, because the active electorate tilts toward older,
wealthier and more Republican. Patterson points out that Democrats
would be in charge in the White House and on Capitol Hill if all
eligible adults voted in 2000. Of course, if politicians expected
more people to vote, they would adjust their campaigns accordingly.
Still, we could expect somewhat different policy outcomes.
Patterson's Vanishing Voter Project found that likely voters in 2000
were more inclined than nonvoters to spend the federal budget
surplus on a tax cut, debt reduction or strengthening Social
Security. Nonvoters were more likely to want it spent on health, education and
Patterson observes that today's minimum wage
(adjusted for inflation) is lower than it was in 1979, that median
income has stagnated and that top-dog wealth has soared. Yet these
core economic issues, which would undoubtedly motivate millions of
disaffected voters, are not pursued with any vigor by the major
parties. Why? Start with the fact that business interests give 15
times as much in campaign contributions than labor interests.
National Democrats are more
beholden to their donors than to their voters.
Then add in
the amazing lack of political competition for most offices:
Three-quarters of the U.S. House wins re-election by a landslide,
one out of seven don't even have a major party challenger, while
more than 40% of state legislative candidates run without major
opposition. Why should these political and economic interests stir
up more voter engagement when things are so cozy for them now? (To
get a better answer than Patterson supplies, turn to Frances Fox
Piven and Richard A. Cloward's invaluable "Why Americans Still Don't
Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way.")
It's striking that, in
a book focused on vanishing voters, Patterson omits any
consideration of Jesse Ventura's shocking win in Minnesota, where
turnout soared thanks in great part to his working-class appeal
(along with his inclusion in televised debates, his ability to get
significant public financing and election-day voter registration).
Patterson also gives scarce mention to other outside-the-box
political challenges, like Ross Perot's in 1992 and Ralph Nader's in
2000, that demonstrably increased voter interest and participation.
He does recognize how real political competition upped turnout
during the Bush-McCain battle and in some of the Bush-Gore
battleground states in the fall. But his prescriptions fall far
short of his diagnosis.
Democracy in America is dying because the
incumbent class of both major parties, working in tandem with each
other and their funders, consultants and a complaisant press, have
figured out how to snuff out real competition. Patterson's book
suggests that, if we want to revive it, we're going to have to
create a truly level playing field for all parties and their
candidates with fair treatment by the media, equal access to the
ballot, an end to partisan gerrymandering, public funding to free
politicians from their dependence on big money, more inclusive
debates and more representative ways of counting votes. In a word,
we need to apply antitrust thinking to electoral politics.
Otherwise, the political market will stay closed, leaving more and
more voters little choice but to stay home on election
Micah L. Sifry is senior analyst for Public
Campaign, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform group. He is the
author of "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in