Democracy’s Decline What This Country Needs Is A Good Voter Registration Drive BY LAFE LARSON IN LAST November’s Presidential election, the number of eligible Texans who didn’t bother to vote exceeded the number of those who did. About 5.4 million went to the polls, but about 5.6 million stayed away. And of those who didn’t vote, people with incomes below the national median. The figures confirm a common perception that poor people don’t vote in high numbers. But, of course, statistics don’t tell us the reasons why they don’t. Mainstream political analysts tell us that low voter participation is due to some sort of political “malaise” that has set in, that Americans lack motivation when it comes to voting. Political pundits on the right assert that voter apathy is a healthy sign, reflecting a contentment with the system. The fact that many just don’t get up the gumption to vote doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong with the process and shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. However, this theory fails to explain why the poor, who have the most to gain from voting, stay home in greater numbers. Further, why is there so much resistance from the right to opening up the enfranchisement process? Those on the left regard low participation as a more deliberate act an unorganized, mass boycott of electoral politics. Those who vote in lowest numbers, the poor, stay away because neither political party addresses their needs. Analysts on the left claim that turnout would increase significantly if our system were more closely modeled after Western Europe’s class-based political system. The poor would be motivated to vote if there were better candidates or campaigns were more issue-oriented. The fallacy of this proposition is that turnout doesn’t increase appreciably when an attractive progressive candidate is on the ballot. Voter turnout differences between conservative and bland Mark White and populist Jim Hightower were insignificant in both 1982 and 1986. If candidate “politics are the driving force, turnout patterns should reflect that but they don’t. There is a third explanation for America’s low voter turnout: many people don’t vote because discriminatory registration practices Lafe T. Larson is Texas Regional Director for Human SERVE, a national voter reform organization based in New York. put into place in the late 19th century continue to keep poor and minority voters locked out of the electoral process. To understand our electoral behavior, according to this line of thought, we must examine the deeply entrenched institutional barriers that prevent large blocs of citizens from participating. The mainstream analysts’ classic “blame the victim” scenario, in this view, ignores a long-standing pattern of deliberate attempts to keep poor and minority voters from the polls. Today’s system, although less extreme than in the early part of the century, continues to deny millions of poor people easy access to the polls. The “procedural barriers” argument is put forth by authors and activists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in their recent book, Why Americans Don’t Vote. Piven and Cloward, who also founded Human SERVE, a national electoral reform project, reject the mainstream political analysts’ apathy argument, viewing apathy, instead, as a “consequence, not a cause” for America’s low election turnout. Before restrictions were established in the late 1800s, both rich and poor voted in record numbers, they point out. Today, once registered, voters turn out in high percentages regardless of the level of formal education. Similarly, Western European countries experience no appreciable difference in turnout among different classes of voters. Barriers such as difficult registration procedures rather than voter apathy are the leading cause for low voter turnout in America. What would be the result if these barriers were removed? For starters, Mark White would probably be Governor of Texas, and Michael Dukakis would probably be President. More important, if a system of inclusion had been maintained, America would most likely resemble the social democracies of Western Europe. No longer would the U.S. be the only democracy in the world without a national health care program, nor would the infant mortality rates in many U.S. cities be higher than in some Third World countries. Nor would we be generating a growing underclass where one-half of all black and one-third of all Hispanic children live in poverty. Why? Because the majority of the nonvoters are poor. Nearly two-thirds of the 70 million nonregistered citizens nationwide have incomes below the national median. And statistics suggest that once registered, people vote. In the last three Presidential elections, over 80 percent of registered Texans cast ballots. INITIALLY, ONLY land-owning males were allowed a voting voice. Enfranchisement expansion began with the removal of the property requirement, and, as barriers were lifted, participation rose dramatically. After the Civil War, black males were granted voting rights and participation reached record levels, ranging from 70 to 80 percent. The pattern of widespread participation began to change by the late 1800s as measures to restrict the franchise were adopted. The farm/labor coalition of 1876 and later the Farmers Alliance forged electoral movements challenging the established political and corporate power structure. Success from populist uprisings threatened the corporate barons, who moved quickly to adopt restrictions to the ballot through poll taxes, literacy tests, and lengthy residency requirements. So successful were the various disenfranchising techniques that blacks and the poor literally disappeared from the registration rolls. In Texas, black participation dropped from 100,000 to 5,000 between the 1890s and 1906. Black voting dropped from 80 to 18 percent in Mississippi and fell 50 percent in Arkansas between 1884 and 1904. Northern states joined the exclusionary trend by establishing residency requirements, some requiring 14 years as a prerequisite to voting. The upshot of the widespread disenfranchisement campaign was a dramatic drop in voter participation nationwide from 79 to 49 percent. In reaction, members of silenced constituencies battled to remove barriers and organized to extend the right to vote. The women’s suffrage movement was a highly successful militant effort that, after a series of strong challenges, culminated in the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Austin activist Jane Y. McCallum organized a drive in 1918 that registered 389,000 women in 17 days, after having won the franchise. The more recent challenge came from the mass protests and litigation during the civil rights movement. A direct result of the movement was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, perhaps the most sweeping reform of our THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11
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