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Democracy Imperiled

THE VANISHING VOTER: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, By Thomas E. Patterson, Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $25

October 06, 2002|MICAH L. SIFRY | Micah L. Sifry is senior analyst for Public Campaign, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform group. He is the author of "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America."

Does your vote matter? After the intensely close presidential election of 2000, some people might be inclined to say yes. Others, noting how the conservative majority on the Supreme Court aborted Florida's vote-counting process, would argue otherwise.

Does your vote matter in the presidential primaries? The candidate who wins the wealth primary--the invisible money chase that takes place before any voting occurs--has gone on to win his party's nomination every year since 1984. So unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, the states where the first two votes are held, your franchise means little during the nomination process.

Should we keep our archaic winner-take-all method of doling out representation, which disenfranchises tens of millions of voters consigned by gerrymandering to live in districts where their parties can never win? Should we keep forcing voters to choose between the lesser of two evils, or should we experiment with preference voting and instant runoffs, which are prevalent in Ireland, France, Australia and elsewhere overseas, and which eliminate the spoiler problem? Why are younger, less educated and working-class people more likely to believe that there are no significant differences between the two major parties, and thus less reason to bother voting? Who benefits from the system now in place, and what will it take to force them to change it?

Alas, Thomas E. Patterson's thought-provoking "The Vanishing Voter" doesn't wrestle with any of these issues. Instead, he confines himself to a much narrower question about the presidential selection process surrounding the 2000 election: "What draws people to the campaign and what keeps them away?"

Patterson's research, which involved weekly polls from November 1999 through the post-election mess, confirms what we already know: Voters are turned off by "too much money, too much theater, too much fighting and too much deception." The process, he writes, "starts way too early and lasts far too long ... provides too many dull stretches and too few high points, and ... holds out opportunities that often turn out empty."

To fix it, Patterson calls on the parties to shorten the campaign and give voters of every state a more meaningful vote, ideally by holding a series of single-state primaries in the late spring and concluding the process with a giant "Ultimate Tuesday" national primary a month later. He also calls on the networks to increase their prime-time coverage of the candidates and admonishes the political press to spend less time hyping minor gaffes, the horse race and their own pontifications. Finally, he urges elected officials to adopt some useful reforms, like election day voter registration (which has significantly boosted turnout in the six states that have it, and which Californians will vote on in November).

Patterson's findings, however, suggest that even some well-intentioned rejiggering of the process will not be enough to bridge the chasm between average voters and the electoral industrial complex.

Consider these nuggets from his book:

* At the start of 2000, two-thirds of the public had no idea which candidates they supported, contrary to the drumbeat of media polls claiming this or that candidate was the front-runner (this is because the media polls forced people to choose between named candidates, while Patterson's polls allowed voters to say they hadn't made a firm choice).

* Despite heavy news coverage, half the public didn't know that Arizona Sen. John McCain beat George W. Bush in New Hampshire. People were so turned off by the race that "by the first convention in 2000

* More people watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 than watched the Bush-Gore debates of 2000, even though there were 100 million fewer people then.

* By election day, after more than a year of campaigning and nearly a billion dollars spent, a majority of those surveyed by Patterson flunked a series of 12 questions seeking to ascertain whether they knew the candidates' positions on prime issues like gun registration, defense spending, tax cuts, abortion, school vouchers, prescription drug coverage, offshore oil drilling and affirmative action.

"The gap between the practitioner and the citizen--despite the intimacy of television and the immediacy of polling--has arguably never been greater," Patterson writes. "The world occupied by the hundreds at the top and the world populated by the millions at the bottom still overlap at points, but they do so less satisfactorily than before. The juice has been squeezed out of elections."

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