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It's Tuesday, 9/12/00. Today, voters in many US states are heading to the polls to vote in primaries to select candidates for local and regional offices. It's given me time to think about the sorry state of voter participation here in America.

As it stands, far fewer than 50% of eligible voters participate in such elections, and if we break much above 50% for a Presidential election, we consider ourselves lucky. Americans over the age of 18 have a say in public policy at a local, state, and national level, but few choose to open their (figurative) mouths and speak.

A lot of excuses are given for this:

Even if you can't get out today (or whenever your local primaries are), get yourselves prepared for the Presidential election on November 7, 2000. Open your mouths and let your voices be heard!

One problem with this is that your vote really doesn't count. Unfortunately the republic structure of the United States voting system makes your vote important to the electoral college who in turn are supposed to represent you.

The only reason I can think of that might actually motivate people who actually advocate change through political process is that the Green Party is on the eve of getting some well deserved funding. Nader is not going to be president but at least his campaigning might well establish the Greens in the United States.

Then again, I'm pretty cynical about reformist politics in general. Bah humbug!

Here's something old and stale to add to the debate:

I don't want everyone to vote. That would be a bad thing . The fewer people who vote, the more my vote will count. And my vote may be quite a bit better informed than certain other votes.

East Carolina University has been trying hard to get more college students to vote -- bribing them with candy and buttons. Why do they want them to vote? Not because the students are interested and informed. If they were interested, there would be no need to bribe them. Surely I can make a better decision than an uninterested college student.

I also think I have better judgment than many long-time voters I know.

I may be biased -- but there's a good chance I'm also right. It's certainly hard to argue that working hard to get Every idiot to vote will help our country in the long run. Even if only 50% of the eligible voters actually vote, that does not imply that it is in my interest to get the other 50% to vote. It does imply that my vote is worth twice as much as it could be.

So who will larger voter participation benefit? Not I.

I can only hope that it is the stupidest 50% that is forgoing the vote, and not the smartest.

Given all the legal safeguards that now bring almost every aspect of voter eligibility under national standards, one might expect that participation in elections would have risen sharply. In fact, the proportion of the voting-age population that has gone to the polls in presidential elections for the last thirty years or so has remained about the same-- between 49 percent and 60 percent of those eligible-- and today appears to be much smaller than it was in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Scholars have vigorously debated the meanings of these numbers. One view is that even allowing for the shaky data on which the estimates are based, decline in turnout has been real and the result of a decline in popular interest in elections and a weakening of the extent to which the two major parties are competitive. During the nineteenth century, according to this theory, the parties fought hard, got voters to the polls, made politics a participatory activity, kept registration procedures easy, and looked forward to close, exciting elections. But after 1896, when the South became a one-party Democratic region and the North heavily Republican, both parties, in turn, became more conservative, national elections usually resulted in lopsided Republican victories, and citizens began losing interest.

Another view, however, argues that the decline in voter turnout has been more apparent than real. Though nineteenth-century elections were certainly more of a popular sport than they are today, the parties were no more democratic in those days than now, and the voters then may have been more easily manipulated, and I dare say, gullible. Until the early twentieth century, vote frauds-- including ballot-box stuffing-- were common. If votes had been legally cast and honestly counted, the statistics of nineteenth century election turnouts might well have been much lower than the inflated figures we now have, so that the current decline in voter participation may not be as great s some have suggested.

Nevertheless, most scholars agree that even accurately measured, voter turnout probably did decline somewhat after the 1890s, largely because of reforms promoted by Progressives to purify the electoral process. One such reform was the adoption of the Australian ballot. This ballot was printed by the government and secretly cast by the voter in a private booth, replacing the old party-printed ballot that was cast in public. In other words, people would not have to be pressured into voting a candidate according to their party nor be constantly harassed if they voted otherwise. Elaborating on Rook’s point, the change helped reduce fraudulent voting. And voter-registration regulation became stricter, eliminating the participation of aliens and cutting back on that of blacks and transients.

Like most reforms in American politics, the Australian ballot and strict voter-registration procedures had some unintended consequences. Besides reducing fraudulent voting, these changes also reduced voting generally because they made it more difficult for certain groups of honest voters-- those with little education, for example, or those who had recently moved-- to register and vote. This was not the first time, and it will not be the last, that a reform designed to cure one problem created another. I remember back in the days when I was a poll-worker for my district, over 80 percent of the voters that I saw were non American natives and knew next to little or nothing about the process of voting. (Or maybe it’s because I live in the bay area and, or maybe a combination of both.)

Even after all the legal changes are taken into account, citizen participation in elections has still declined. Between 1960 and 1980, the proportion of voting-age people casting ballots in presidential elections fell by about 10 percent, a drop that cannot be explained by how the ballots were printed or the registration rules were written.

sources cited:
"The Changing Shape of American Political Universe" by Walter Dean Burnham
"Affairs of State" by Morton Keller, pp. 523-524
"The Effect of Australian Ballot Reforms on Split Ticket Voting, 1876-1908" by Jerrold D. Rusk, pp. 1220-1238

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