Monday, October 30, 2006


Why "Turnout" Is Dropping (Hint: It's Not Because Of Apathy)

According to a knowledgeable friend of mine, Michael McDonald is THE expert on voter turnout. Here's an excerpt from a piece he did for the Washington Post on the subject:

Thanks to increasing voter apathy, turnout keeps dwindling. This is the mother of all turnout myths. There may be plenty of apathetic voters out there, but the idea that ever fewer Americans are showing up at the polls should be put to rest. What's really happening is that the number of people not eligible to vote is rising -- making it seem as though turnout is dropping. Those who bemoan a decline in American civic society point to the drop in turnout from 55.2 percent in 1972, when 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote, to the low point of 48.9 percent in 1996. But that's looking at the total voting-age population, which includes lots of people who aren't eligible to vote -- namely, noncitizens and convicted felons. These ineligible populations have increased dramatically over the past three decades, from about 2 percent of the voting-age population in 1972 to 10 percent today. When you take them out of the equation, the post-1972 "decline" vanishes. Turnout rates among those eligible to vote have averaged 55.3 percent in presidential elections and 39.4 percent in midterm elections for the past three decades. There has been variation, of course, with turnout as low as 51.7 percent in 1996 and rebounding to 60.3 percent by 2004. Turnout in the most recent election, in fact, is on a par with the low-60 percent turnout rates of the 1950s and '60s.
Of course, the vast majority of those states that don't allow former felons to vote just happen to be in the South. And also of course, these states tend to arrest blacks, especially black males, on far less provocation than that exhibited by whites. The Sentencing Project has done signal work to bring the issue of ex-felon disenfranchisement, and its racist objectives, to the attention of the public. Go to their website and show them some love.

This figure of 10% who have been barred from voting is a warning sign. Democracies (or democratic republics) can only function if they represent the people. If they exclude large numbers of people, the foundations are rotten, and the edifice will fall.

Blacks are not only disproportionately arrested, but are also disproportionately convicted. If a black man and a white man are each picked up with, say, one ounce of marijuana, the treatment they receive is very different. Most of the people in prison are there for minor drug offenses.

I am not an absolutist on voting. I think there are grounds for permanently barring people from voting.

Participation in voter suppression, for example.
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