Vote for Democracy

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Wednesday, October 18, 2000
If you're like most Americans, it's not until right about now, with the November election just around the corner, that you begin paying some serious attention to politics. For people in Washington, D.C., where politics is a year-round preoccupation, it seems late in the election season. But for the rest of America outside the Capital Beltway, involvement in politics amounts to a single question, asked at this time every two years: Should I vote? 

Americans know they should vote. It's a fundamental obligation of citizenship in our democracy. Taking part in the electoral process with millions of fellow Americans feels good; not voting leads to a guilty conscience. 

And yet, in recent years, most Americans have taken a pass on voting. Turnout in 1996 was 49% of eligible voters, the lowest in a presidential election since 1924. Turnout in 1998 was 36%, the lowest in a non-presidential year since 1942. 

Does this mean our political system is broken? No, but it is under plenty of stress. Politics is becoming a spectator sport; people watch campaign debates on television, they tune in to pundits arguing on talk shows. But too many don't bother to vote. 

At the Gettysburg battlefield 137 Novembers ago, Abraham Lincoln reflected on how the Founders created "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." As the Civil War raged, he asked "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Nowhere is it written in the stars that the answer to Lincoln's question is forevermore a "yes." If voter turnout continues its downward slide, how long can we go on claiming that we truly have a representative democracy? 

A lot of people say they're discouraged from voting because politics is too partisan, and because politicians have become captive to ideological extremists and special interest groups. What people must understand is that by not voting, they are helping create an environment in Washington that is contaminated by intense partisanship, one in which the power of ideological factions and special interests is amplified. These factions and interests make sure their faithful show up at the polls, so, naturally, candidates for elective office cater to them. Higher voter turnout is one of the best antidotes for Washington's partisanship. 

What can be done to spur voter turnout? Several things come to mind. We need to eliminate the obvious administrative hurdles that discourage voting. Some states require people to register to vote many weeks in advance of an election, a practice long out of date in this era of instant data transmission via computers and the Internet. In some states, the polling hours are inconvenient for working people with long commutes. In my home state of Indiana, for example, the polls close at 6pm, far too early for people who work a full day and then face a tough drive home. 

We also should enact structural reforms that would help make our elections more competitive, especially contests for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In most years, only two or three dozen of the 435 seats in the House involve highly competitive races. Who can blame people for not voting in elections that aren't competitive? Voters would have more interesting races to choose from if we overhauled our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of special-interest money and to put challengers' campaigns on a more equal financial footing with those of incumbents. 

We also need to break down the feeling of alienation that too many Americans feel toward the federal government. They see government as merely a taxing authority which does things to the people, rather than a helper that is "of the people, by the people and for the people," as Lincoln put it. People should be more aware of the important role that the federal government plays in their everyday life, including the many services we all enjoy that are financed by our taxpayer dollars. 

You're probably a busy person, not someone with spare time to spend on a big political cause or even volunteer to help with a campaign. That's understandable. There are other, simpler things you can do to make our democracy healthier. For starters, don't give in to cynicism. When you hear, "my vote doesn't matter," don't nod in agreement. Say that this election is going down to the wire, that one vote per precinct in every precinct in the country could settle whether Congress and also the White House are under Democratic or Republican control come 2001. 

The most important thing you can do for democracy will, I admit, take a little effort. On the 7th of November, plan a little extra time, go to the polls and vote. Do your part. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)