The Dinosaur in the Living Room

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill 
November 11, 1997

Pardon me, but do you see the dinosaur in the living room? It's standing there in the middle of the carpet, and nobody wants to talk about it. We all just tiptoe around it, year after year, pretending it's not there and hoping it will go away.

In spinning the recent elections for partisan implications, commentators generally ignored the glaring fact that, once again, 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 you had to work mighty hard to find references to turnout in the latest round of voting -- or rather, non-voting.

Let's take Virginia. Turnout in the 1997 governor's race among registered voters was 48% -- as opposed to 67% and 61% in the state's last two gubernatorial elections. And that doesn't even count eligible voters who never registered. Turnout among all eligible adult Virginians was an abysmal 34%.

But Virginians can take heart. Their turnout was better than Broward County, Florida, where a mere 7% of registered voters made their way to the polls. Such shockingly low numbers were found in numerous localities.

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 San Francisco. And of course 25% of eligible voters typically remain unregistered.

The United States now has on average the lowest voter turnout in the world among mature democracies. The long-term implications of our plunging voter turnout surely are as serious as fluctuations in the stock market. But because it is creeping up slowly, like a crippling disease, the crisis of our "political depression" generally goes unrecognized.

At what point does a democracy cease to be democratically governed? 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. We maintain the corner posts of representative democracy, but with the active consent of less than half our citizens.

It is time for prominent national and state discussions about this political depression. 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, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times."

Our political leaders and concerned citizens must be as bold as Jefferson and his contemporaries, and consider changes that will allow voters to see a real connection between their votes and policy. Here are some proposals to consider:

* Non-partisan redistricting: One-seat legislative districts give incumbents the opportunity to gerrymander district lines using sophisticated computers and census data. They quite literally choose their constituents before their constituents choose them. This consigns most Americans to "no-choice" legislative races.

* Election holidays, weekend voting and mail-in-balloting: Making the practice of voting more convenient will have a beneficial effect on voter turnout.

* Unicameral state legislatures: Two houses in a state legislature undercut accountability and increase costs; bicameralism is simply redundant in state government, since both houses represent overlapping geographic areas.

* Increased size of legislatures: The U.S. House has remained at 435 representatives since 1910, despite our population nearly tripling. Many state legislatures also are small; California's state senate districts are larger than its congressional districts. Big districts make elections costly and keep representatives distant from constituents.

* Instant runoff voting: As more important races are won by a simple plurality -- like the Clinton presidency, or the recent 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 replace current two-round runoffs or primaries, thereby maximizing turnout and saving candidates and taxpayers the cost of the second election.

* Proportional representation voting systems: Used in nearly all mature democracies, proportional systems mirror a free market economy; voters have the multiplicity of choices they treasure so highly as consumers. A political force winning 51% of votes earns a majority, but not all; winning 10% wins 10 percent of representation, not nothing. Proportional systems increase voter turnout substantially because voters have more choices and a greater chance to elect their favorite candidates.

Debating such rule changes are only the beginning. Pulling us out of our political depression will not be easy, but we must not wait. If President Clinton seeks a place in history, calling for a national campaign to address our political depression would be a lasting legacy.

Call it a new deal for democracy. It's time to talk in earnest about that dinosaur standing in the middle of the living room.

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