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Why We Hate Voting

I know that the country's turned to the right. But we'd still have the New Deal if voters were turning out at New Deal-type rates. (Between 1936 and 1968, voter turnout in presidential elections fell below 56 percent just once. Since 1968, it has never exceeded 56 percent.)
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Posted Thursday, May 20, 2004, at 10:45 AM PT - Usually, the outcome of a presidential election "depends on the turnout of the Democrats." So says Nelson Polsby of the University of California-Berkeley. For once, I agree with a political scientist. I take Polsby to mean "Democrats" as a term of art for "most people." By "Democrats" he means people with hourly jobs, high-school dropouts, high-school grads, single moms, single dads—anyone at or below the median household income.

But let's narrow "Democrats" to people way down the income ladder, whose voting rate is usually less than 40 percent. Waitresses. Claims adjusters. College kids with loans. If the turnout among these people hits 50 percent, the Republicans are in trouble. Get it up to 60 percent, and Bush won't even come close.

I know that the country's turned to the right. But we'd still have the New Deal if voters were turning out at New Deal-type rates. (Between 1936 and 1968, voter turnout in presidential elections fell below 56 percent just once. Since 1968, it has never exceeded 56 percent.) So how can Democrats get the turnout of all eligibles up to 65 percent?

There are two ways: The Schwarzenegger model and the Cotton Mather model.

Let's start with the Schwarzenegger model: Pander to people. There's much to learn from the California recall election. Stupid as it was, people did vote. The turnout of registered voters was 61 percent. (This was more than 10 percent higher than normal in California.) And this was a state election held not just in an off year, but an off month.

So why was it so high? I have two hunches. First, people came because the ballot was simple. Yes, there were more than 50 candidates, but voters had to mark only two boxes. Recall Gray Davis? Yes or no. Who to put in? Vote for one. In most elections in my state, Illinois, people have to fill in 50 boxes. It has become like taking a pop quiz. I go into the voting booth and think, "I've not been doing the reading; I don't know who these people are." I leave feeling a little soiled. And if I think that, and I'm a lawyer who neurotically reads four newspapers a day, how does a normal non-lawyer feel? In the California recall—for maybe the first time in years—everybody went in there and knew, "I'm going to pass."

The second reason I think people showed up is that even though the whole election may have been ridiculous and unnecessary, it was a lot of fun. It wasn't that Arnold was from Hollywood; lots of stars run for office. It was that the election was from Hollywood. It wasn't about political parties. It was a political party.

It was like the way elections used to be in the days before they were pop quizzes—back in the late 1800s, when the turnout (albeit only among white men) in the North and Midwest reached levels of 80 percent or more. Why did all those men out there on the farms leave their wives, saddle up, and ride for miles? To party!

Election Day was like Mardi Gras. For some, it was a three-day drunk. (Maybe not in New England, but at least in Illinois.) Some didn't sober up for another two years, until it was time to saddle up and go off to vote again.

So what are the lessons from California?

First, offer two ballots, a long one and a short one. Let's call the short one Fast Ballot. President. Congress. Governor if there's a race on. That's all. You're done. Someone else will vote the long ballot.

Second, let's make the election fun. Here are a few ideas:

One free drink.Let's take the 10 biggest population centers. In each one, set up a business-type council, full of media types and celebrities, to push voting. In September and October, have them sign up bars and restaurants to put up a red-white-and-blue logo on Election Night. What does the logo mean? With your ballot stub, first drink is on the house. Soon everybody will want to have a logo, the way in the New Deal, businesses showcased the Blue Eagle. Put the word out on college campuses. Get them to compete to throw the biggest party. Pump it up, the way we've done with Halloween.

Registration lotto. Each state has a special drawing. Anyone who registers to vote is automatically entered. (The number that's drawn will be a voter-ID number.) Set the pot at 10 percent of all the dough Bush raises in your state. Ads can remind people, "But to play, you gotta vote!" This can also make people aware of the last day to register to vote, which is usually 30 days before Election Day. As the deadline nears, the ads can say, "Last chance to play Registration Lotto!"

Ten concerts, 10 cities. Free rock concerts for people who register for the first time. Aren't the rockers on our side? Let's have 10 concerts in 10 cities on one night—again, 30 days before the election.

So what about the Cotton Mather model? Here's the idea: Command people to vote. Straight, simple moral obligation. The French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote of the morality that says, "You have to, because you have to." No more of the nice election lady saying, "Oh, thank you for voting!" Here are a few ideas:

Use the public schools. In October, in every public school, call the kids into assembly. Bring in the PTA. Bring in speakers. Tell the kids: "You have to vote. It's what America is about." Set the kids up with voting-related projects for the next month, and write letters to parents urging them to take the kids with them to the polls. Why should schools do this? If the right people get into office, it will help the schools much more than passing any levy. And "because they have to."

Use the pulpits.Or at least the parish councils. Let's take just Hispanic voters. There must be thousands of Catholic churches with Spanish masses. At least one Democratic precinct captain should be on every parish council and arrange for it to register people in the parish. Most of the priests will go along because they're usually Democrats. They tend to say very little about politics, but the one thing they can say is that people in the parish ought to vote. Why? To help the parish. Why else? "Because they have to."

Try the colleges.Ask college presidents to send a letter to every student telling them to register. Why? "Student funding. Financial aid." They'll get the message. And because they have to.

If the Democrats want to win, we have to start doing these things. Because we have to.

Thomas Geoghegan, a lawyer, is the author of

In America's Court

and a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

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