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Stateside With Rosalea: Who votes and what for

Stateside With Rosalea: Who votes and what for

I'm somewhat discombobulated this Sunday morning from having just seen a US Democrat visiting Iraq say that Presidents are capable of lying and that the current one is. His comment came during an interview on 'This Week', and the comment and its fallout will no doubt fill up the news bulletins for weeks to come. Just last week, smiling host George Stephanopoulos opened the show with the words: "The debate on Iraq continues to dominate the news this week," and the debate only got hotter as time went by.

I'm reminded of the year 2000, when the situation in the Middle East dominated the news and effectively closed down any access Green presidential contender Ralph Nader might have had to the newsrooms of the nation. First there was the bombing of the USS Cole in September, then the bloody killing of an Israeli soldier at a Palestinian police station in October. This year the Iraq gambit has the added bonus of a Green foreign minister - in Germany - waiting in the wings as an anti-American bogeyman should any news organisation suddenly realise that "nonpartisan" is not the same thing as "bipartisan", and stray off the RepDem front porch, notebook in hand.

*Who votes* "The two-party system is something we're stuck with in this country," said Benjamin Highton at a public meeting on "Who votes and why" held in the local public library on September 19. He is a political science professor at the University of California's Davis campus, near the state's capital city of Sacramento, and has done extensive research, teaching and writing about voter turnout. He had been invited to speak by the local branch of the League of Women Voters, who made up most of the audience. Here is a brief summary of what he said, and a sampling of the Q&A that followed. Anything in [..] is my editorialising.

There are four main factors influencing who votes, Highton said: the characteristics of individuals, the characteristics of campaigns, registration laws and voting laws. Obviously if an individual is not a citizen they can't vote, and in California the number of people who are not citizens is in much higher proportion than in other states. In fact, if you represent the number of people who voted as a percentage of the adult population, rather than as a percentage of adult citizens, you're introducing about a 10 percent distortion. Three other major characteristics of individuals that affect their likelihood to vote are educational standards, age, and residential stability.

Campaigns that are characterised by more competitiveness increase voter turnout. [In this two-party world that the US seems to want to continue forever], such competitiveness can come only from having a Republican and Democrat fairly equally popular in their electoral district. But "incumbent jerrymandering" is such an accepted part of the redistricting process that of 435 House races in the US, less than 10 percent are competitive. [You only have to look at, for instance, ABC's webpage on this year's election to see that they list only 41 House races that are actually competitive.] Highton said that face-to-face campaigns - where people go door-knocking - are more effective than telephone campaigns, and that there is no evidence that negative campaigns depress turnout.

Registration laws are the third factor because "voting is a two-step process". First you have to get registered, and the US is unique among democracies in having its citizens - rather than its government - assume that responsibility The 1993 National Voter Registration Act was an attempt to make the registration process easier by integrating it into the process of getting a drivers licence if people want to do that. [In the US, if you move to a new state to live you need to get a licence issued by that state, e.g. by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.] Six states allow election day registration.

Before Highton could get on to how voting laws affect elections, the questions started coming:
Q1 Would voting on Sunday or making election day a holiday affect voter turnout?
It would probably stimulate voting but not as much as we might think. It doesn't get people registered and they're the largest group who don't vote. In fact, 80 percent of registered voters go the polls in presidential elections. [However, less than one-third of all registered voters voted in the March primaries here in California, and turnout in November is expected to be a record low.]

Q2 What is the effect of third parties on turnout?
H: It may be that there was a higher turnout in the 1992 presidential election because of the presence of Ross Perot in the race. "To the extent that we vote for the party that appeals, more choices might increase turnout."

Q3 How does same-day registration impact voter turnout?
H: Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin saw a five to ten percent increase; New Hampshire, Wyoming and Idaho saw a decrease. That decrease is attributed to parties being not so active in registering voters. The "motor voter" Act in 1993 had a bigger effect.

Q4 Won't election day registration encourage voter fraud?
H: The states that allow same day registration generally haven't encountered this problem, but they are not as populous and urban as California.

Q5 Won't election day registration open the democratic process up to last-minute manipulation by party hacks?
H: Everyone who is a citizen has the right to vote.

*What for* The reason there were so many questions about election day registration is that it is a statewide ballot measure in this election. Currently: "To vote in an election, California citizens must register 15 or more days before the election." The passage of Proposition 52, which would cost "about $6 million per year to help counties pay for election day registration", would mean that "California citizens who qualify to vote and have proof of residence could sign up and vote at their polling place. It would add new protections against voter cheating."

The quotation marks are there because I'm quoting an advance copy of the 'Easy Reading Voter Guide' that I picked up at the adult literacy convention I went to a couple of weeks ago. The editor of the guide, Susan Clark, had both the hard copy and a preview of on her laptop at the convention because she was looking for learner volunteers to look at the website and say if it met their needs. The guide is so clear that the 'San Jose Mercury News' publishes it in the run-up to elections, and the California Secretary of State's office changed how their guide looks, based on what the learners had created in conjunction with Clark over the years.

And believe me, you need a guide to vote in the US. Not just on the activity of voting, but on who and what to vote for. The English version of the 'Easy Reading Voter Guide' is 16 pages long, and it covers only the races and propositions at state level. Then there are county and city elections for public office and measures, in smaller of greater number depending on where you live. San Francisco's official voter guide for November is the size of a small telephone book. These guides list not just the names of the candidates and the text of the propositions, but the candidates' statements and the pros and cons of the various measures.

So, when I ask "what for?" in connection with US voters, I don't mean it in a cynical sense. I want to contrast the complexity with which they are faced in comparison to, say, a New Zealand voter who puts one mark beside a name, another beside a party, and in some years might mark yes or no for a non-binding referendum question. Propositions here are for real - the money will be spent, so the pros and cons are legion. How do voters know what to vote for?

Besides the official guides put out by the Secretary of State and the various election agencies at county and city level, there are the ad campaigns. At present, ads in favour of state proposition 49 are getting a lot of airtime. You can find out about it at That's Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he's come out to bat for money being earmarked from the state budget for after-school programmes. Sounds good, huh! It might surprise you to learn that the Terminator is being taken on by a bunch of grannies, in the form of the League of Women Voters, who recommend voting no on this proposition because - for all its good intentions - it will mean other, equally beneficial, programmes will inevitably be starved of cash.

For me to characterise the LWV as a "bunch of grannies" is to do them a disservice. I have to admit to being a member, and I'm not a granny. I joined because when I was trying to find out how to understand the complexity that characterises US democracy, I was consistently referred to their publications. It is probably not the only non-partisan citizen organisation that does trojan service registering voters, informing them of the pros and cons of various issues, and setting its own goals for a better democracy, but it's the one that I know for a fact operates as a tree of volunteers, each putting in their small effort to make this community of individuals, cities, counties and states into a nation.

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