The unemployment level, it is widely agreed, is a major issue in the imminent midterm congressional elections. Yet recent press reports conclude that unemployed workers are expected to stay away from the polls in record numbers. What difference do elections make to their plight, many of those interviewed asked. Political analysts tell us that the high unemployment more likely will affect the votes of people who are employed but fearful of losing their jobs.
Millions of young Americans, ages 18 to 21, also will be otherwise occupied on Election Day. The surveys predict less than 25 percent of those eligible citizens will bother to exercise their franchise. People in their 20s are not expected to be much more voter-minded.
Minorities also will display a low voter turnout. There are some exceptions. Black and Puerto Rican voter drives in New York City helped win for Mario Cuomo, the Democratic candidate for governor, over Ed Koch in the Democratic primary last month.
All in all, pundits are predicting that the total percentage of eligible voters who actually will vote for their senators and representatives in Congress will not exceed the 38 percent mark reached in the 1978 midterm elections. This is a deplorable projection which should invite some constructive responses by a Democratic society. Why is it that Americans show about the lowest voter turnout of any Western democracy? There are some reasons and remedies for this state of affairs that should be debated widely toward some kind of public resolution.
Unlike Australia and a few other Western nations, voting is not considered a civic duty in the United States, as is jury duty. For example, the Australian constitution obliges citizens to vote their preference unless they have a valid reason for abstaining, such as illness. Consequently, more than 95 percent of eligible voters turn out to vote in that country’s national elections.
Here, the problem historically has been the many obstacles which governments have placed in the way of Americans. Poll taxes, literacy tests, race discrimination against minorities, intimidation by political machines and other stumbling blocks were prevalent not all that many years ago. Presently, overly restrictive registration and residential requirements in many states remain entrenched. If Maine allows voters to register as they vote on Election Day, why do other states require registration separately weeks before the election?
Making it easier to vote by removing these hurdles, keeping polls open longer or having Election Day as a holiday or on a weekend, and improving the mechanics for administering the voting process could attract more people to the polls.
But the more basic attraction is making the act of voting more interesting and significant. Citizens are the ones who have to assume this challenge. Tom Ryan, a civic leader in Missouri, believes that advisory or binding referenda would spice up the often dull contests between two programmed major-party candidates. The nuclear referenda are serving this function of taking election time as an occasion for public debate and education. A referendum to raise the drinking age to 21 would bring young voters to the election booths for sure.
Additional political parties and more televised debates with an audience of voters asking questions, instead of a panel of reporters, can stir the waters of public interest. More diversity of political parties, in part because it is simpler to qualify for the ballot, explains some of the 75 percent to 90 percent turnout in European elections.
Reducing the role of private monied interests in campaigns by establishing public financing under definite limits and providing a certain amount of free time for candidates on TV and radio would nourish far greater confidence among voters that votes count more than dollars.
The task ahead will only be undertaken by cooperating citizens who want to reform and recover an election process that increasingly is being taken away from its people. Candidates for office who are not pressed to take a clear stand for change will tend to forget the folks back home that much more when they go to Capitol Hill.