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Think It Doesn't Matter If You Don't Vote? Think Again

October 15, 2006|George Skelton

Sacramento — "If ya don't vote, ya don't matter," candidate Willie Stark shouts in the recently released movie "All the King's Men."

The barnstorming Stark -- a Louisiana Huey Long knockoff -- puts it like this in the original 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren: He implores "friends, red-necks, suckers and fellow hicks" to stand "on your own hind legs" and go vote.

"If you've got the brain of a sapsucker left and can recognize the truth when you see it, this is the truth: You are a hick and nobody ever helped a hick but the hick himself. Up there in town, they won't help you.

"It is up to you and God, and God helps those who help themselves."

Stark ultimately is elected governor, but hardly becomes a role model. Ambition and power turn him into a demagogic, corrupt gutter-crawler.

But nobody has ever better articulated the importance of exercising one's right to vote.

It's crucial to bounce from office politicians who break their promises, he says. Well, not exactly bounce.

"Nail him up if he don't deliver.... You ask me what my program is. Here it is, you hicks. And don't you forget it. Nail 'em up!.... You hand me the hammer and I'll do it with my own hand. Nail 'em up on the barn door!"

In California, a lot more voters turned out in 2003 to nail up Gov. Gray Davis than did the previous year to reelect him.

That 2002 campaign set a California record for the lowest turnout in a gubernatorial general election -- in terms of both registered voters (51%) and eligible citizens (36%). We could be headed for yet another record low on Nov. 7, experts say.

Turnouts have been slowly declining for 30 years. Why? Alienation from government beginning with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, plus 18-year-olds gaining the right to vote. Young people should be allowed to vote. They just don't as much as older folks and that lowers the turnout percentage.

There are other reasons for the no-shows:

Candidates are too scripted and cautious and don't inspire.

Many people are too cynical and bitter.

Some are lazy.

Mark Baldassare, pollster for the Public Policy Institute of California, blames the political parties for not engaging immigrants, as they did in past generations. Indeed, the percentage of adults registered as either Democrat or Republican, he says, has fallen from 54% to 43% since 1990.

In that period, Baldassare reports, California's population has climbed by about 25%, but voter registration has increased by only 15%. Just over half the adults are registered to vote.

Shame on Democrats. Most nonvoters would side with them, based on the pollster's research. It's not in the GOP's interest to register voters inclined to tax and spend. But there's no excuse for Democrats to not aggressively target these political dropouts.

Analyst Tony Quinn faults "the mechanization of politics" -- polling, focus groups, fundraising, TV ads -- that has deemphasized grass-roots citizen involvement.

Republican consultant Sal Russo says that "people no longer see government as a vital part of their lives" -- unlike during the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War -- and "they've stopped looking to government for solutions."

The result of low voter turnouts is that the electorate doesn't represent the citizenry.

Election outcomes tend to be more philosophically conservative than if everybody voted. Taxes are lower. Services are fewer. Schools decline. Public works falter. California doesn't keep up with its growth.

"The people who go to the polls are very different from those who don't," Baldassare writes in a recent study of voters and nonvoters.

He says "the difference is especially stark" in attitudes toward government's role, elected officials and public policies.

For example:

* The electorate doesn't reflect California's ethnic diversity. Among frequent voters, whites account for 72%, Latinos 14%, Asians 6% and blacks 5%. But the adult population is 46% white, 32% Latino, 12% Asian and 6% black. Moreover, 63% of adults not even registered to vote are Latinos.

* Other demographics also are off kilter. Most of the likely voters are age 45 and older, homeowners, college graduates and have household incomes of $60,000 or more. The vast majority of nonvoters, however, are under 45, renters, don't have college degrees and earn less than $60,000.

* Frequent voters are closely split over whether they prefer higher taxes and more government or vice versa, reflecting Democratic and Republican attitudes. But two-thirds of nonvoters want higher taxes and more services.

* Proposition 13, the rebel property tax-cutting initiative of 1978, is practically sacrosanct among likely voters (homeowners); 56% still believe it's a good thing. But only 29% of nonvoters (renters) think it's good policy.

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