Voting: Civic duty ignored

SUN JOURNAL

Elections: The eligible stay away from the polls in droves, leaving the field to the well-organized and the special interests.

September 10, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

After every decade's census, the party in power in each state redraws legislative and congressional district boundaries to account for population shifts. The idea, ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, is to create an arithmetically pure landscape for democracy: One person, one vote.

Once accomplished, the whole exercise seems arid and silly: The carefully balanced electorate doesn't show.

For four decades, American voters have been too lazy or too turned off to turn out. Some say their absence is a vote against a system they don't respect or trust. The fear is that many don't even bother with a reason for staying away.

The failure seems more than ironic as Americans observe the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Citizens put flag decals on their cars, but they seem more than willing to let others decide who will represent them in public office. Fewer than 10 percent of Democrats and Republicans have voted in a handful of party primaries this spring and summer.

According to the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, turnout in the statewide primaries held this spring and summer registered new lows for mid-presidential term elections.

Average turnout is now 50 percent lower than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Even at the high water mark in 1966, only about 33 percent of the electorate turned out. But this year, the total turnout achieved by both parties combined has been just over 16 percent - again, less than 10 percent for each of the major parties.

One of the nation's most passionate students of the electorate, Curtis Gans, makes no effort to conceal his bitter disappointment at the continuing abandonment of a citizen's most fundamental responsibility.

"In the real world, no one should have expected that the events of 9/11 would have increased political participation," says Gans, who is director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"What the citizenry was asked to do was to return to normalcy, consume material goods and invest in the stock market, hardly clarion calls to civic involvement."

It is worth observing that President Bush, who might have included voting in his charge to patriotic Americans after 9/11, won the White House in an election decided, not by the popular vote or even by a recount of disputed Florida ballots, but by a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

That crisis of vote-counting would not rank high on the list of events showing how every single vote counts. Indeed, that whole process looked like an exercise in canceling votes.

Gans fears that failure to vote will, in the long run, counter every bit of unifying stimulus, including such events as dramatic as 9/11. Without some effort at renewed civic education, he fears even deeper erosion of the voting impulse.

The current circumstance produces some curious conflict: Maryland legislators found themselves struggling over the voting rights of ex-offenders who apparently yearn to vote even as their law-abiding neighbors have no comparable interest. (The felons and their legislative backers prevailed. Many will be allowed to vote unless they have two or more convictions for violent crimes.)

The decline in voting can be seen in every demographic, racial, gender and income grouping. The most noticeable drops occurred among white males. Younger voters grow less and less interested in voting as they grow older.

Black Americans, since the 1964 Voting Rights Act, are the most reliable grouping sampled but only relatively: the number of blacks who turn out is going down, too, albeit less sharply.

The problem for a democracy, Gans points out, goes well beyond the discouraging spectacle of people squandering or stifled in the exercise of a precious right.

And it is likely that many have little understanding of how profoundly their inertia affects our system of government. The masses of voters are, in effect, transferring their power to whatever small interest group wishes to have an impact on a given election.

It is here that the labors of the redistricting teams seem to be mocked by the voters: The effort to make certain no voter has more power than another is sharply undercut when elections are left to those special interest groups that do care enough - are, in fact, eager - to claim for their interests or candidates. One person equals many votes, in a sense.

This year's election for comptroller in Maryland has become a textbook example of the dynamic. Secretary of State John T. Willis, a master organizer with many contacts in political and issue organizations, could defeat an icon of Maryland politics, incumbent William Donald Schaefer.

In a primary, a relatively unknown candidate with well-honed organizational skills and highly motivated partisans could score a stunning upset.

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