11/5/2004 1:07:00 PM Editorial Something to celebrate?
No matter which side you were on, nearly everyone has been cheering the higher-than-usual turnout in Tuesday’s election.
Let’s not get too excited.
While it’s great that voter turnout increased by a few percent both nationally and locally, remember that what we’re measuring is turnout — the number of registered voters who actually go to the polls.
What we’re not measuring is the number of voting-age citizens who don’t even get in the game by registering.
The jury is still out on the 2004 election, but Census Bureau figures from 2000 and 2002 are not encouraging. In 2000, only 55 percent of the voting-age population actually voted. And the percentage of the voting-age population registered to vote was at a then-all-time low of 64 percent. In 2002, only 42 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot — and a new record-low 61 percent of the voting-age population registered.
Assuming we agree that something’s wrong with this picture, what is it? It’s easy to call those who don’t register lazy or apathetic. But how much is really being done to bring people into the game — especially those who may be chronic non-voters, maybe for generations?
Low-income Americans, for example, still have the lowest registration rates. While fewer than 60 percent of citizens in households earning $25,000 or less annually say they are registered, the rate jumps to more than 80 percent for citizens in households earning more than $75,000. You can draw your own political conclusions from a disparity like that.
Voting-rights organizations say lower-class and minority citizens still face barriers to registration and voting in many places, even after decades of legislative and legal battles to bring them into the process. And even where barriers have been lowered, there’s not much being done to encourage participation.
Who has an interest in keeping things the way they are? In a system where money talks, the danger is that a politician’s constituency no longer consists of the citizens who enter the voting booth, but those who provide the millions it takes nowadays to run for, and stay in, office. Opening up the process might make those big donors less powerful, and the politicians less beholden to them.
And that would really shake things up.
According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, the U.S. now has on average the lowest voter turnout in the world among mature democracies. And that organization goes on to ask the question: At what point does a democracy cease to be democratically governed?
As we “celebrate” a 2004 national voter turnout of just under 60 percent — of registered voters — that question is well worth thinking about.