A Modest Proposal to Give Something to Everyone

THEO LIPPMAN JR.

April 15, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

Apropos of this day, I would like to offer a simple way to reform the electoral process to the delight of both Republicans and Democrats, if they really mean what they say. It is a meaningful reform, too, one that would revolutionize the nature of politics and government in America.

Democrats, who believe most non-voters are Democratic by inclination, say they want to see more turnout in elections. Republicans, who have been in the minority in Congress and most state legislatures for over a generation and who believe the more incumbents you oust the more likely the Grand Old Party would gain control, say they want to see more turnover.

These are both fine sentiments. Here is my plan for achieving them.

Turnout. Americans are poor citizens, if you measure citizenship by rank-and-file, grass-roots participation in the electoral process. We have one of the lowest voter-turnout rates of any free society in the world. A study of 24 industrial democracies showed U.S. voter turnout percentage ranked 23rd.

Presidential elections draw more people to the polls than any other elections in the United States. On November 8, 1988, the presidential election attracted 91,584,820 American citizen-voters.

Compare that to another national political event of a few months earlier. On and in the days leading up to April 15, 1988, 106,993,675 income-tax returns -- 1040 forms -- were mailed to the federal government. Approximately 40 percent of those were joint returns of husbands and wives. That means the actual number of Americans who paid personal federal income tax in 1988 was 154,735,890. Two-thirds more Americans paid personal federal tax than voted.

If Americans could vote when they pay their taxes, I imagine that almost all would. That is, if your ballot were attached to your 1040 form, and if you could just mail it back in the same envelope, you would go ahead and vote, wouldn't you, Mr. and Mrs. Non-Voter? (Two ballots with a joint return.)

Even if as many as 15 percent of 1040 filers chose not to vote (and even if non-taxpayers could not vote at all), the turnout in a presidential election year, using 1988 as example, would be almost half again greater. Instead of 91.5 million voters that year, there would have been 133 million.

That 41.5 million more voters would probably be a greater number this year, since population has grown and turnout has been falling in this year's primaries, which is surely a portent for November. No other reform being proposed or discussed could affect change of anywhere near this magnitude; nothing else could add nearly so many voters to the process. I believe that in fact there would not be nearly a 15 percent non-voting rate by 1040 filers. I'll come back to that point.

Turnover. The House of representatives, especially, has too little turnover for a healthy public body. This year there is a lot of talk about a record-setting number of representatives being defeated for re-election. But to put that in perspective, the worst (best?) estimate as of now is that only about 1 in 10 incumbents who run will lose. A 90 percent re-election rate would be an improvement from the perspective of those who favor turnover. In 1988, 96 percent of House incumbents who sought re-election won. It was 96.9 percent in the Senate.

The figure for the Senate was an aberration. Incumbent senators' re-election rates have been below 90 percent in most post-war (World War II) elections. In fact, it was below 80 percent in 13 of those 23 elections. In the House, 90 percent or more of the incumbents won in 18 of the 23 elections. Only once was the House incumbents' re-election rate below 80 percent.

This is true even though public-opinion polls always show citizen dissatisfaction with Congress. What has happened is, voter turnout has fallen so low that the actual electorate -- as opposed to the total citizens in a district -- is skewed by the number of people who have had a direct relationship with the incumbent, or think they have because they get taxpayer-paid-for campaign fliers (disguised as reports) from the incumbent.

I would estimate that almost all 1040 filers would vote. At least 97, 98, 99 percent. In 1988 that would have meant 150 million voters compared to the actual 91 million. Why? (1) It would be no trouble. And (2) talk about motivation! The very act of filling out a tax return or having to pay someone to do it for you concentrates the mind of a voter much more effectively than all the campaign slogans, slick television commercials, speeches, bumper stickers, etc.

All citizens satisfied with the tax code, loopholes and all, that the incumbent members of the House of Representatives -- and senators and the president in those election years in which they were also candidates -- would vote to keep their benefactors. Everybody else -- everybody who was not satisfied with those responsible for the tax code and tax return rules and regulations -- would vote to turn the lawmakers out.

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