Shhh... Don't Wake the Voters

By John B. Anderson
November 8, 1997

Pardon me, do you see the elephant in the living room?

In the wake of this month's so-called "elections" around the United States, that is how I feel about our woeful level of voter turnout. In spinning the election for its partisan implications, commentators generally ignored the glaring fact that fewer and fewer of us participate.

It is typical for any election from overseas to report voter turnout on a near-equal basis with election results. But I had to work hard to find references to turnout in the latest round of voting -- or non-voting.

Let's take Virginia -- someone has to, if not eligible voters. Turnout among registered voters was 48% -- as opposed to 67% and 61% in the state's last two gubernatorial elections in 1989 and 1993, respectively. True, some of this drop can be attributed to the "motor-voter" law that put more adults on the rolls. But the number of voters dropped despite rises in both population and registered voters in the state; turnout among all adult Virginians was an abysmal 34%.

But Virginians actually can take heart. Their turnout was better than my home county of Broward in Florida, where I was one of a mere 7% of registered voters who made their way to the polls. Such shockingly low numbers were found in numerous cities.

In New York City's Democratic primary -- a primary that decided mayoral nominees and the de facto winners for city council seats that almost all are dominated by Democrats -- turnout among registered Democrats was only 18%. Detroit's mayoral primary turnout was 17% of registered voters; in Charlotte's primary, it was 6%. General election turnout was under 40% of registered voters in Miami and New York City and under 30% in Boston. And let us remember that many eligible voters remain unregistered.

The long-term implications of our plunging voter turnout surely are as serious as fluctuations in the stock market. But because it is happening slowly, the crisis of our "political depression" generally goes unrecognized. A high school student recently contacted the Center for Voting and Democracy to ask who would win an election if no one came -- indeed, I wonder if it will take such an election for us to take our situation seriously.

At what point does a democracy cease to be democratically governed? We largely maintain the key freedoms of the Bill of Rights, but with the active consent of fewer and fewer citizens. Bill Clinton was re-elected with the support of fewer than one in four eligible voters. Republicans won control of the House of Representatives with even fewer votes.

Decreases in turnout of course are not equally distributed. Low-income voters participate in far smaller numbers than higher-income voters. In 1990, for example, 14% of Americans voters came from families with incomes under $15,000. In 1992, turnout among this class of voters declined to 11%. In 1994 it dropped to under 8%. Voter turnout by age was just as disturbing -- the younger we are, the less we vote. Despite all of the MTV hype, voter turnout among college age Americans hit all-time lows in the 1994 and 1996 elections.

Voter turnout is just one measure of political depression. Fewer than one in twenty Americans believed all the major promises made by President Clinton and congressional leaders about their budget deal this summer. This cynicism about politicians runs deep. Just as those of my parents' generation showed the impact of the economic depression for decades, so I fear that the cynicism and distrust of today will be felt well into the 21st century.

Already there are sharp decreases in political science majors and law school students around the country. With politicians and lawyers two of the most reviled professions, it is no wonder. But making and administering laws are essential to a civil society.

It is time for prominent national and state discussions of our electoral laws and their impact on voter participation and trust. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his twilight years that "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times."

Just as Franklin Roosevelt gave Americans a "new deal" in the midst of our economic depression, our political leaders should give us a new deal in our electoral laws. They must be bold enough to allow competition and, thus, real choice for voters. They must consider changes that will allow voters to see a real connection between their votes and policy.

We certainly have few competitive elections. The average margin of victory in U.S. House races in the 1990s is over 30%. Only one of 51 city council seats in New York City elections this year was won by less than a 10% margin. Fewer than one in twenty state legislative races in Virginia and New Jersey could be termed competitive; one in three state legislative races around the nation in the 1990s have not even drawn two major party candidates.

That is why the single most important reform would be proportional representation for legislative elections. All U.S. House elections and most state legislatures and major city councils are elected today from one-seat districts. One-seat districts mean that 51% of voters allegedly "represent" 100% of people in the district. Districts are based on the assumption that geography determines voters' vital interests -- an assumption rooted in the 18th century, not in the multi-faceted, mobile and interconnected world of today.

One-seat districts also give incumbents the opportunity to gerrymander district lines so that they quite literally choose their constituents before their constituents choose them -- artificially propping up a two-party system that poorly reflects our country's political diversity and consigns most Americans to "no-choice" legislative races.

Most other mature democracies have jettisoned exclusive reliance on single-member districts in favor of systems of proportional representation. Such systems mirror a free market economy, with voters having the choices they treasure so highly as consumers. A political force winning 51% of votes earns a majority, but not everything. A party winning 10% wins its fair share of representation.

There is a full range of proportional systems to consider, including the "semi-proportional" system of cumulative voting which was used to elect my home state of Illinois' state legislature from 1870 to 1980. The Chicago Tribune and an impressively bi-partisan array of political leaders in the state express support for restoring it and the more balanced, creative representation it allowed.

But proportional representation is only one of a host of reforms that we should consider. Campaign finance reform obviously is needed, to ensure greater political equality and fuller participation; I strongly support public financing of elections. We also should be willing to debate:

  • Adopting unicameral state legislatures: Two houses in a state legislature undercut accountability and are simply redundant in states when both representing geographic interests.
  • Increasing the size of our legislatures: The U.S. House has remained at 435 since 1910 despite our population nearly tripling. State legislatures also are often small; California's state senate districts are larger than its congressional districts.
  • Installing instant runoff voting: As more important races are won by plurality -- like the New Jersey governor's race -- it becomes more important to use this Australian system that insures a majority winner in a single round of voting. It also should be used in cities that use traditional, two-round runoffs.
  • Compulsory voter turnout: Several nations requiring adults to go to the polls, if not vote. Such laws don't need to be strictly enforced to have a remarkable impact on turnout.

Debating such rule changes are only the beginning. Pulling us out of our political depression will not be easy. In addition to changing rules, it may require some galvanizing event like World War II to inspire prospective new leaders of quality to participate and for us to see the good in current leaders.

But we must not wait. If President Clinton is serious about seeking a place in history, calling for a national campaign to address our political depression with a new deal for voters would be an ideal project.

John B. Anderson is a former Member of Congress (R- Illinois) and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Voting and Democracy (

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