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Low Turnout Refutes Sign Of Mandate

by Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Center for Voting and Democracy

Fewer than two in five adult Americans participated in the 1998 elections
Pardon me, but do you see the elephant 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, hoping it will go away.

Amid all the post-election buzz about Democratic gains and the political futures of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, most commentators ignored this most glaring fact: fewer than two in five adult Americans participated in the 1998 elections. Some even suggested that a turnout rate of 37 percent was a victory of sorts, given the fact that so many states had record-low turnout in primaries this year.

Have we become a nation of electoral under-achievers? The United States now has the lowest voter turnout in the world in national elections among established democracies. The long-term implications of our plunging 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 recession" generally goes unrecognized -- and unfortunately may not be addressed until we are deep into a full-scale political depression.

What is the cause of this depression? There are as many opinions as pundits. But a central factor that is often overlooked is the lack of competition in most legislative races resulting from the decennial practice of redistricting.

Despite some excitement over unexpected mid-term election gains made by the Democrats this year, the fact is that 99 percent of incumbents won re-election. Nearly a quarter of races didn't even have two major party candidates, and fewer than one in ten races was won by a competitive margin of under 10 percent.

A year ago, we predicted winners and victory margins with stunning accuracy in more than four in five U.S. House races, despite not knowing anything about campaign financing or the credibility of challengers. The reason for our success is that most legislative districts tilt clearly toward one party or the other.

This imbalance is no coincidence -- the district lines were drawn by legislators who pick their constituents before their constituents pick them. In 2001, each state again will draw new districts -- using increasingly sophisticated computers to gerrymander "safe" seats, particularly for incumbents.

The result of redistricting is the sort of "no-choice" legislative races we experienced this year, with a direct impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout. The Center's analysis of past elections shows that, not surprisingly, voter turnout drops as the degree of competition decreases. Even when on the winning side, voters don't have a sense that their vote counts for much when their candidate always wins by a landslide.

That is why we support Iowa's criteria-driven redistricting process in which districts are drawn by a nonpartisan independent commission according to the public interest, not narrow political interests. Mapping technology is sufficiently inexpensive today that citizens groups and good government activists can and should be involved in the next round of redistricting in 2000-2001.

More fundamentally, states and localities should consider adoption of proportional representation voting systems. Our current "winner take all" system is a relic of the 18th century. The more modern proportional representation systems, now in use by most of the established democracies in the world, mirror a free market economy, with voters having the multiplicity of choices from across the political spectrum -- a range of choice we treasure so highly as consumers.

With proportional representation, every voter experiences a close election, and far fewer votes are "wasted." A political force winning 51 percent of votes earns a majority, but not everything; winning 10 percent wins 10 percent of representation, instead of nothing. Proportional systems have a demonstrated ability to increase voter turnout by 10 to 30 percent, because voters have more choices and more voters will cast winning votes for their favorite candidates instead of the "lesser of two evils." Voters can get excited because their votes actually count.

Among many other reforms that can increase voter turnout, here are two particularly promising modifications of our voting procedures that received boosts this election:

  • Mail-in-balloting   Bringing more voters out to the polls may be best achieved by bringing the polls to your mailbox. After years of using vote-by-mail for many of their local elections, Oregon voters this year gave a big thumbs up to an initiative calling for polling place elections to be replaced by vote-by- mail. Where it has been used, vote-by-mail has increased turnout because it's so convenient for voters.

  • Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)   Minnesota probably had the highest turnout in the nation this year, in large part due to Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura's surprise win in the governor's race. One in eight voters said his candidacy was the reason they voted. Given the interest that can be generated by such candidates, it is important to use a system that encourages their participation without having fractured results that undermine majority rule. IRV simply allows voters to rank candidates in their order of preference. If their first choice finishes last, their vote transfers to their second choice until one candidate has a majority. By eliminating concerns about "wasting" votes on "spoiler" candidates, IRV will help make independents and third parties a more regular part of our elections -- and ensure more choice for voters, as well as majority rule.

Pulling us out of our political depression will not be easy, but we must not wait. If our political leaders have the welfare of our nation in mind, they will call for a national campaign to address low voter turnout and our nation's political depression.

It's time to start talking about that elephant standing in the middle of the living room.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the Executive Director and West Coast director of the Center for Voting and Democracy

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Albion Monitor November 16, 1998 (

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