President Reagan likes to refer to the United States as a "city on a hill"--a model of a democratic society for others to emulate. Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the operation--and one of the most serious is the low level of participation in elections by Americans.
In the 1986 election, only 37% of eligible Americans actually cast ballots. More than 100 million did not participate in choosing a President in 1984. In voting for legislative representatives, the United States is in last place among Western democratic nations; for presidential races America ranks second to the bottom.
The added bad news is that the trend is getting worse. The 1986 election had the lowest voter turnout since 1942; turnout has declined by 20% since 1960. Among voters from 18 to 24 years old, ony 16.6% cast ballots in 1960. In California, non-voters have become the majority--and the state ranks 41st in turnout as a percentage of voting-age population.
One explanation for the low level of U.S. voter turnout is that people are happy with the current state of affairs and see no need to concern themselves with politics; another is that many people are so alienated they see no hope of affecting public affairs and abstain from voting out of despair or cynicism. Neither portrait of Americans--contented sheep or apathetic cynics--is very flattering. Fortunately, neither is entirely accurate.
Many factors have contributed to a decline in U.S. voting: the shift of population to suburbs and the weakening of the party system; the rise of TV-based campaigning, which can induce passivity, and the tweedledum-tweedledee non-choice between many candidates for public office. The double shocks of Vietnam and Watergate have also had demoralizing effects.
However, it turns out that when Americans are registered to vote, they cast ballots in percentages not too different from citizens in other Western democracies. The significant fact is that we are the only country where the entire burden of registration falls on the individual rather than on the government. Only in the United States is voting a two-step, individually initiated process: First you have to register to vote, and then you are allowed to vote. In most other Western democracies, voter registration is automatic and done by the central government. In a few others--England and Canada--before every election the government undertakes a universal voter enrollment by canvass.
Our registration process makes voting more difficult and effectively acts as a means test. Those who are better educated and of higher economic status find it easier to register. As a result, the non-voting population is class-skewed. Those at the bottom of society--the poor, minorities, renters, unemployed--are less likely to be registered to vote, and as a consequence are underrepresented. People whose interests go unattended for a long time often turn to non-democratic ways of expressing their concerns--crime, riots, drug use and other asocial behavior.
While the non-voter situation is a large blot on our democratic record, the good news is that changes in the registration system appear to be at hand. Efforts to increase registration and turnout are being made at the city, state and federal levels where new organizations have arisen to push for reforms that make it easier to register and to vote. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) is sponsoring a universal voter registration act--the most serious national effort at voting reform in almost a decade.
There are ways that voter participation might be significantly increased:
-- Election Day registration. Since the mid-1970s, three states--Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin--have allowed voter registration on the day of an election. Unregistered eligible citizens can go to the polls, sign a sworn statement, present identification and vote. This system has operated without any instances of fraud--and voters have turned out at 15%-20% higher levels than the rest of the United States. Cranston's bill would provide for Election Day registration of voters in all federal elections. In California, Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego) has introduced a bill mandating Election Day registration.
-- Department of Motor Vehicle registration. Three states currently register people to vote when they get licenses to drive. In Colorado, people can register to vote on the same form as they register to drive. In California, Assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Oakland) has introduced a bill providing for DMV to provide postcard registration forms to all driver's license applicants.(But Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a similar "motor voter" bill last year, saying it was not DMV's job to register voters.)