blank.gif (51 bytes) How to Get 90 Percent
Voter Turnout

by Brendan Trainor

t has been called our most sacred right. It takes only an hour or so to do every two years. There is no charge to do it. Yet, not enough people are bothering to vote. Why aren’t more people bothering?

Taxes ... schools ... the economy ... abortion ... drugs ... crime ... character. Get involved. Let your voice be heard. Do you want four more years of HIM? None of the traditional issues and slogans appear to be enough any more.

In Washoe County, a task force is being formed to look into voter turnout which was the lowest of the decade this election, 49.01 percent of registered voters statewide. Should voting be required by law? Or should it be made as convenient as a drive through a McBurger stand?

What are the incentives to participate in the political process? What are the turnoffs? Has there ever been a period in American history when there was high voter turnout? Why? Do other countries enjoy consistently high turnout? Why? Should there be structural changes in the process? Or simply more calls to patriotic duty?

According to public choice economists, non-voters are not simply lazy and irresponsible. They make an honest, rational choice. The benefits of political participation simply do not outweigh the costs. Given that their single vote is highly unlikely to effect the outcome of any political election, the opportunity costs of being an informed voter—obtaining information through the media, then through research, personal contact with representatives, community meetings, public hearings, etc. is too much to justify. Being an informed citizen can be a full-time job. Those who decide to be informed do so because the benefits measurably outweigh the costs.

These are the "special interest groups"—voter blocks that coalesce around specific tangible benefits they hope to gain from government. By concentrating on effecting a specific benefit, they can reap political profit (called "rents" in public choice analysis) from the general public. This is the political problem of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. A federal program, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, costs the individual taxpayer perhaps 35 cents a year, hardly enough to bother to write a letter. But the beneficiaries reap millions. For the special-interest informed voter, it is worth the effort to organize and get out the vote for candidates pledged to that specific cause. For many others the reasons to vote are less clear.

The lack of accountability of modern candidates to deeply rooted ideological preferences may generate voter apathy. In the modern two-party system, the conventional wisdom is to appeal to ideology in primaries, and to pragmatism in the general election. Politicians’ shifting messages present a bundle of issues that an individual cannot separate out as easily as he can, for example, tailor a choice in the market. For Libertarians in the last election, for example, Republican John Ensign’s campaign for Senator was refreshing for its willingness to openly propose Social Security privatization. His intransigence on the medical marijuana issue was a definite turnoff. Democrat Harry Reid’s position was the opposite on both issues.

But the Libertarian Party’s candidate, Michael Cloud, who did represent our views on both matters, was not allowed to debate, and had little money to campaign effectively. A Libertarian voter is faced with the choice, once again, of "wasting his vote" by voting for a candidate who cannot win, or choosing between candidates who each may represent some individual preferences, but oppose many others. In this election personal freedom was the decisive issue—four out of six Nevada voters who voted for medical marijuana voted for the winner, Harry Reid. But many did not vote at all. It could be because neither major candidate was perceived as pledged to all or most of these voters’ individual preferences. And they had no realistic expectation that a minor party candidate could win. With Nevada’s penchant for excluding minor party candidates from public television debates in important races, most voters did not even hear their message.

As long as we have a winner-take-all electoral system, there may always be two dominant political parties. But do we have only two, or even three, American political philosophies? Not according to David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party in Denver.

Nolan invented a political ideology "quiz" or measurement device known as the Nolan Chart. Usually based on YES, NO or MAYBE answers to ten simple questions, it measures the participant’s "Freedom Quotient," based on his beliefs whether government should intervene in either economic or personal matters. Americans, political scientists now recognize, are not divided into liberal and conservative camps like a national Crossfire show.

The left/right continuum measures only part of the nation’s ideological spectrum. Americans can be described as left-liberal, rightconservative, libertarian, authoritarian, and centrist, in nearly equal measure. Five competing ideologies trying to squeeze into two major parties that are dominated by the left-liberal, right-conservative and centrist (usually called "moderate") elements. The libertarian and authoritarian points of view are necessarily secondary to both camps. In fact, recent surveys indicate that probably 20 percent of registered Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats are essentially libertarian in outlook.

This correlates with internal surveys taken by the Libertarian Party itself—about 25 percent of its members are defectors from the Republican Party, 15 percent from the Democratic Party. The remaining 60 percent are from the non-partisan, nonvoting "I always knew I was different from them" population. The Libertarian Party in recent years has concentrated its efforts, understandably, not in convincing liberals and conservatives to change their minds, but simply to find libertarians. Whether they are in the major parties or in the frustrated masses not at home in either party the goal has been to find and encourage libertarians to join and be active. This strategy has been working, as the party has grown by 216 percent since 1994.

But if the political voting process is measurably inefficient and to some degree just naturally discourages participation, what can we point to as a model for when the process has worked? According to Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News and a nationally recognized expert on third party and independent candidates and electoral laws, we can point to the late 19th century American experience as the high point of voter turnout and participation. Winger believes that, in a healthy two party system, voter turnout is highly correlated with two parties that have sharply differentiated platforms, yet allow for the free and equal emergence of third parties. This high voter turnout comes from voter identification with coherent political ideologies.

The Gilded Age Republicans consistently advocated high tariffs, foreign intervention, public works spending, some civil rights, public schooling, some prohibition. The Democrats favored low tariffs, isolationism, less federal spending, states rights, private schools and beer on Sundays. This clear differentiation in principle contributed to voter turnout from 1876-1892 that often reached 90 percent. It resulted in absence of gridlock, orderly transfers of power, and a competitive and spirited political atmosphere.

What intrigues Winger is that it occurred in a completely unregulated ballot process. Governments did not even start printing ballots until 1888. The parties themselves gave their members ballots, which could be individually amended or substituted for. There were no laws restricting the formation of new parties. New parties sprang up to represent agricultural and labor interests. While they did not dominate, they quickly grew strong enough to influence legislation. There was no public funding of any party. Contrast that to today, where the two major parties receive lavish public funding, even for their nominating conventions. The two major parties also generally do everything they can to restrict access to debates, and in this regard Nevada is one of the worst states. Nevada did enact ballot access reform, but most states require onerous petition requirements for ballot access.

In Great Britain, voter turnout even today is usually in the 70th percentile. The British system is a two-party parliamentary system, but with some representation of minor parties. Here the electoral process is also highly unregulated. Anyone can run for office by simply paying a small filing fee. There is public funding, but it is modest and equal. Every candidate for Parliament receives two free mailings and some free TV and radio time. The campaign season is kept short.

Winger insists that an unregulated, freely competitive electoral environment with ideologically coherent parties that offer a clear choice, with open debate, is the key to high voter turnout and a healthy political environment. Third parties should be given equal status and allowed the same privileges as the major parties. They may succeed in becoming a dominant party, like Andrew Jackson’s New Democracy or Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. Or they may perform vital democratic functions such as influencing legislation, or acting as an "emotional bridge" between the two parties for disaffected voters—a bridge facilitating both policies and peaceful transfers of power. Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, George Wallace and Ross Perot, as well as the Libertarian Party, have performed these functions without becoming a dominant party.

Or it may be that voters will respond to what got Jesse Ventura elected the Governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party label—a directness and honesty that signals to the voters that politics should really not be about power but service. Sadly, I doubt that the Washoe County Task Force will recommend improvement of voter turnout—and most public issues—by more honesty, openness and fair play from government. NJ

Brendan Trainor is the Washoe County chair of the Libertarian Party.


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