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Why Americans Still Donx92t Vote
An interview with Frances Fox Piven
Francis Fox Piven is professor of political science and sociology at the graduate school of the City University of New York. She is co-author with Richard Cloward of a number of award-winning books, including Regulating the Poor, The Poor People's Movement, The Breaking of the American Social Compact, and Why Americans Still Don't Vote.
BARSAMIAN: Why Americans Still Don't Vote was recently updated with the “Still” added to the title.
PIVEN: We originally published it as Why Americans Don't Vote in 1988. The “Still” was an ironic comment on the lack of progress in American elections and in turnout since then. It also is true that in the intervening years the situation actually worsened. On the one hand, the mechanics of registration became more accessible to people as a result of the motor voter reforms we had worked on, but, on the other hand, the political parties drifted even further away from the interests of ordinary Americans. They operated within a neoliberal ideology that argues markets must rule, not only nationally but internationally, and that government better get out of the way. That's of course a very old idea going back to the 19th century, but it's been resuscitated in the late 20th century. Just think about what it means. If markets must rule, if governments have to get out of the way, why should we bother to go out to vote?
The formal right of franchise is much celebrated in the political culture.
There are ways in which the celebratory tale is true. We were the first country in which the formal right to vote was ceded to white men regardless of their property or their earnings or their educational qualifications. Over the course of the 19th century, that arrangement helped to account for the early development of political machines, of clientalist arrangements, through which politicians traded votes for private favors. We were the country that became home to the political boss. But in the late 19th century, as industrialization and urbanization proceeded, as immigration accelerated, and as large numbers of workers and farmers began to feel the stresses and uprooting of industrialization and urbanization, a kind of popular politics emerged in the political parties. There were grassroots movements, insurgent third parties, and a kind of tumult in electoral politics. It was during this period that American political and economic elites tried to roll back the franchise that had been won after the Revolutionary War. They did this by imposing new conditions on the right to vote. They reinvented the poll tax, which had been eliminated in the early 19th century. They reintroduced educational requirements. They stiffened residence requirements. To make all this effective, they introduced a system unique in the world of personal, periodic voter registration, in which it's the responsibility of every prospective voter to see to it that they get on the voting lists and to do that by going to the election board when they're open, even if they're 30 miles away. That arrangement, together with the new educational and poll tax and residence restrictions, had the effect of driving voter turnout down very rapidly early in the 20th century.
But here's the complication. It wasn't just the rules and procedures. Political elites wanted to purge these discordant, difficult voters. But they didn't do it just by making it less likely that they would vote. Once it was less likely that immigrant working-class people in the cities would vote, that radicalized farmers would vote, the political parties stopped doing their campaign work in their areas and neighborhoods. They stopped talking their language. They stopped naming their grievances. It became more convenient for the political parties in several ways. One, a smaller electorate means a cheaper election campaign. An electorate that is not only smaller but that doesn't include the more dissident sectors of the population means an easier campaign to manage, particularly as money begins to flow into the parties, which also begins around the same time as voter registration restrictions.
Over the course of the 20th century, we've developed a limited democracy, a limited electoral representative system, which the parties manage. Nevertheless, the ideology, the story of America as the first democracy persists because these restrictions were not obvious and definitive. Voter registration restrictions discouraged voting. They didn't prevent voting. The illusion of the U.S. as the complete democracy was not damaged by the fact that we are among one of the most backward in terms of voter turnout. Black Americans didn't get the franchise until the 1960s. In terms of historical progress, that is a very bad showing.
Your lead chapter is “Does Voting Matter?” Does it? Does non-voting matter?
Yes and no. The democratic ideal that ordinary people should determine who occupies positions of state power and authority is rarely realized fully. But it is still nevertheless true that voting matters somewhat and voting matters more at some junctures than at others. If you compare the electoral histories of European countries and the U.S., voting seems to matter more in Western Europe. Voting matters more there even though the franchise was won later, fully a century after it was won in the U.S. But instead of the development and expansion of the rights associated with the franchise in the U.S., we saw their contraction, management, and manipulation. In Western Europe, when the franchise was won, the fledgling Socialist, Labor, and Social Democratic political parties that already existed became significant organizational instruments for political power. Working people did win things through electoral politics. You can gauge the measure of their victories by the differences between Western European governmental domestic policies and American domestic policies. Western European countries have far less inequality. Poverty is infinitesimal compared to what it is in the U.S. Their unions are stronger. They never attacked the welfare state. They've talked about it, to be sure, but in the end, the European welfare state has not much changed in the last two decades, and look at the changes that occurred in the U.S. So whether voting matters or not depends a great deal on other features of the electoral representative system and of the society in which the electoral representative system unfolds.
In the U.S., the effort to control and limit electoral representation, to limit formal democracy, was strenuous and successful. It's embedded in the Constitution. It is reflected in the decision of the founding fathers to turn over the question of who should have the franchise to the states. It's reflected in the decision to make the president not subject to the popular vote but to the Electoral College, something that came back to haunt us in election 2000. It's reflected in their decision to give every state two representatives in the higher legislative body, the Senate. States are just pieces of territory. What do they have to do with democracy? Why do they get representation when people are as a consequence so misrepresented. The half million people in Alaska have two Senators just as the 50 million people in California. All those decisions were made by the founders. They were made in the reflection of their anxiety about the democratic passions that had been unleashed by the Revolutionary War, democratic passions, by the way, that they could not ignore. We live with those limitations to this day.
What were the bases for these decisions in terms of race, class, and gender?
It never occurred to the founding fathers that women should have the right to vote. This was the moment in which the American upper class, the nationalist upper class, the revolutionary upper class was determined to create a state with the capacity to protect its interests, for example, in Western lands, in shipping, with the Navy, with the capacity to establish a sound currency so that these crazy radical farmers who wanted debt relief would not get their way. There were many things that the founders wanted that could only be gotten in a nation-state and not with 13 disparate colonies. When they met in Philadelphia to construct the terms of the compromise between the states that would make a powerful nation-state possible, they had to worry about the fact that each of these colonies had a different kind of society and economy. Most importantly, the economies of the South depended on slave labor. The first glimmerings of emancipation were evident during the Revolutionary War. The idea that all men were created equal and that slaveholding was inconsistent with democratic ideals was already apparent. These were not ideas that were widely held, and they certainly didn't mean that ordinary Americans believed in the equality of African Americans. They didn't. But slaveholding was nevertheless anathema to many people, especially in the North. The slave-dependent colonies of the South wanted a guarantee as a condition of their entering the Union of being able to continue a slave-based economy. They got that guarantee in the Constitution, which first incorporated the provision that fugitive slaves from the South had to be returned, incorporated a provision that weighted Congressional representation toward the South by counting slaves in the allocation of Representatives even though slaves of course did not have the vote. Again, the allocation of two Senate seats to each and every colony also helped to assure the slave power that joining the Union would not be a risk to their practices, as was the Constitutional provision which guaranteed the continued importation of slaves for 20 years.
What this meant to the Southern representatives in the Constitution-writing process was that the Southern states would be free to write the laws which guaranteed the continuation of slavery. They did write those laws. Moreover, because of these other provisions in the Constitution, until the Civil War, the South had dominant influence on the national government. The Abolitionists, for example, conceived of themselves as a minority movement, a sacred movement against an overwhelming power, the slave power, which dominated Washington and our national laws.
The Abolitionist movement was non-electoral?
It was maybe the greatest movement in American history, about which we teach our young people very little. It was a movement of fierce moral passion. It arose throughout the North, based mainly in Protestant churches. It was a movement committed to the emancipation of the slaves. Immediate emancipation was their slogan, in order to avert the sorts of stratagems that had blunted any Abolitionist sentiment at the time of the Constitution. But what was in a way most remarkable about them was their willingness to stand up to the scorn of politicians, of the leaders of the churches, and even of public opinion, since public opinion was not very friendly to blacks, even in the North. By doing that, by standing up to that scorn, insisting on their moral credo and organizing, they had the effect of helping to spur slave insurgencies, to create the Underground Railroad, which drained 100,000 slaves from the South, not so very many, perhaps, but enough to threaten the slaveocracy. Their persistence and insistence split open the major Protestant denominations. We have Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists. That all dates from the Abolitionist struggle. Eventually they split the parties, too. When they split the parties into Southern and Northern parties, they split the capacity of American elites to accommodate on the slave question, and war came.
Some argue that non-voting is a tacit expression of satisfaction with the status quo. What's the argument against that?
I like it when people make that argument because it's so idiotic, as evidenced by the fact that the people who are least well off in the U.S. are the ones who are least likely to vote. That has always been true, or rather, I should say it's been true in the last 100 years, since the contraction of the electorate began at the turn of the 20th century. Those who think that non-voting is a sign of satisfaction with the way government is working have to explain why there is a strong correlation between economic status and voting, between whiteness and voting. Until the last couple of decades, a correlation even between gender and voting.
Talk more about the process of who votes, how they vote, and how the votes counted.
As your questions indicate, it's gotten to be a problem on many levels. After the debacle of Election 2000, there was a lot of talk about the election machines. The one commitment George W. Bush has made is to support the purchase of new ones. The machines were flawed. They have always been flawed, because running elections is a state and county responsibility. Counties fulfill that responsibility in accord with their budgetary capacity, which reflects the affluence of the people who live in that county. So poor counties have poor machines. But in solving that problem, which exists all over the country, they will expose another problem which also exists all over the country. That is how elections are administered and who administers them. Americans are indifferent to that question, partly because they think that elections are administered in a bipartisan or non-partisan way. Elections are administered by the two major parties. That's how all election laws are set up. There should be both Republicans and Democrats on the state, county, and town boards of elections. What that means is that the two major parties, both of which have stakes in the status quo, collude to keep the electorate basically the same as it was before. The people who run elections don't like new voters. They don't like the trouble that it causes in terms of administering elections and in terms of election upsets. These election officials are all connected to local parties. A non-partisan system of running elections might be a little bit better.
You notice how in the Florida election one of the many scandals was that some private company was hired by local election administrators to identify felons who were on the voter registration rolls, because felons can't vote. The state laws that prevent felons from voting ought to be reexamined. Anyone who has served his or her time and has now established that he or she is a good citizen should have the vote. But what actually happened in Florida, and what happens all over the country, is that people who were not felons were identified by this company. The election officials told them that their names had been purged from the rolls. That sort of thing happens all the time. People go to vote and find that their names are not on the rolls. The extent to which this is the result of incompetence and collusion is very hard to speak about definitively. But I can assure you that this is much more likely to happen in poor and minority communities than in affluent communities, if only because the affluent would raise such an outcry.
Or in communities with large immigrant populations who don't have command of English.
Absolutely. In the Florida election, another scandal was that police roadblocks were set up on election day which often blocked minority voters who didn't want to go through them. The principle duplicates the stratagem used by Jesse Helms, for example, in I believe it was the 1990 election, where he sent out tens of thousands of postcards to minority voters warning them that if they went to vote and they were not fully eligible to vote, they might be guilty of a felony. It's pure intimidation. Or in Texas and New Jersey, the Republicans hired ballot cops, off-duty police, walking up and down the lines of waiting voters, warning them that they could be taken in for any transgression. That's intimidation. It happened in Florida, but it's important to remember that it always happens. It does seem that there was more coordination in Florida. The Jeb Bush machine was at work.
Then there was the arcane Electoral College, which meant that although Gore got more than half a million more popular votes, he got fewer electoral votes and when members of the Black Congressional Caucus tried to use that arcane law to challenge Florida's electoral votes, because the House of Representatives can challenge electoral votes, they were not allowed to do so because the law also said they had to have one Senator supporting them, and they did not get that Senator. Finally, there's the way the election was conducted because it was a big-money election. All of our elections are big-money elections if they're for important posts.
There's the final discouragement to electoral participation, to voter turnout, which is that people understand that the issues that are discussed, the promises that are made, do not control what these people do once they win power. Legislation is complicated. There are amendments. They'll raise the minimum wage and attach riders giving business more tax breaks. The system is out of control.
Electoral campaigns are awash with money. Billions of dollars are spent. The airwaves are saturated with advertisements. One would think, with that kind of visibility, that the turnout would dramatically rise.
Three billion dollars and counting was spent on advertising in the last presidential election. But people are not fools. All the surveys we have show that people have since the 1960s become increasingly skeptical and cynical about our politicians and the way our political system operates. While it's hard not to be stirred to some extent by a close horse race, people are cynical about American electoral politics. We usually give cynicism a bad name, but that cynicism is a good thing. It's the first step toward understanding, and understanding is a necessary step toward becoming part of a larger movement for reform.
You write, “Little attention has been given to the actual role of the parties as demobilizers of participation.” What are the Democrats and Republicans doing to demobilize participation?
It's a long-standing pattern in American electoral politics that the parties compete as much by trying to keep people from the polls as by trying to bring them to the polls. That proposition flies in the face of a kind of truism that's taught in political science classes that competitive parties try to enlarge turnout. This was a proposition advanced by a very eminent and brilliant political scientist named E.E. Schattschneider. He thinks that it was party competition that led to enlarging the electorate in American political history. That was true for a little while early in the 19th century. But by the end of the 19th century, the parties had discovered another way of competing, by disenfranchising groups that wouldn't vote for them, by keeping them away from the polls, by making it harder for them to vote. We know it's true in the South, where blacks and poor whites were kept from the polls, but it was true in the North as well.
We can still see this in electoral politics. In our book we tell the story of our efforts to win agency-based registration to make it possible for people to register to vote when they used other government services. That reform was eventually embodied in federal law in the National Voter Registration Act, known as motor voter. We worked at that reform for 15 years. At the beginning, we thought that liberal Democrats would be our allies because, after all, if we made it easier for poor people and working people and blacks and Hispanics to vote, they would vote for Democrats, so why shouldn't Mario Cuomo or David Dinkins be on our side? They have the authority to order voter registration in state or city agencies. But they weren't on our side. They mouthed our principles. They said they were on our side. They slapped us on the back and issued orders, but they didn't see to it that those orders were implemented. We think it's because of the destabilizing impact that a large influx of poor and minority voters would have not only on the chances of Mario Cuomo, but on the entire Democratic establishment in New York State, and ditto for David Dinkins and the entire Democratic establishment in New York City.
We also tried to get interest groups like the unions or the social service agencies to work on this, but with very desultory responses. They were willing to support us in principle, but they were not willing to use any organizational capital to see to it that voter registration was offered to people who used the services in social agencies or in the agencies where unions were strong. In both of those instances, organizational maintenance concerns were preeminent. They didn't want any of the backlash they might experience if they were to make it easy for poor and minority people to vote.
Talk more about how income drives voting. In the U.S. two-thirds of those with incomes above $50,000 a year vote. Compare that to one-third of those who earn under $10,000 who vote.
There's a theory of why that's so that has flourished in American political science, which argues that poor people have certain kinds of social characteristics that deter voting. They're less educated, which means that the voting process may be difficult for them. They also have not imbibed the civic culture that more educated people have. They might have shorter time horizons. They pursue immediate gains rather than the longer-term gains that might result from electing a better political party or leader. There are endless studies showing the correlation between the socio-demographic characteristics of people who have lower socio-economic status and non-voting, and it's true.
But it's also true that in some places at certain times people with just those characteristics—low income, low education—are more likely to vote than more affluent people. In cities controlled by working-class parties, they're more likely to vote. In the 19th century, Paul Kleppner, a political historian, has argued that there's good evidence for thinking that working-class and poorer people voted at higher levels than better-off people. In Western European countries there's no correlation between social class and the likelihood of voting or not voting. So that theory, even though it's very popular among American political scientists, and you can understand its attractiveness, it means that whether or not you voted has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with your social characteristics or your social-psychological characteristics. It's always attractive to blame it on something else. It's much more reasonable to think that when political parties that dominate our politics, ignore lower socio-economic strata, that those strata are less likely to vote. When they're less likely to vote, you'll create a situation where social scientists will be able to correlate their social characteristics with not voting.
Alexander Cockburn in CounterPunch reports that in Cook County, Illinois, “more than 120,000 votes cast in black precincts were discarded. In Fulton County, Georgia, which encompasses most of the Atlanta area, nearly one in every sixteen votes cast in black precincts were rejected by the voting machines.” So it certainly seems that this is a more national problem, not just Florida.
It's a very widespread pattern. We know here in New York, for example, that in poor communities polling places are more likely not to open on time or likely to have broken voting machines. This is partly neglect, disregard, but it also works for the dominant political regime. Because elections are run by people connected to the political regime, they will work for the political regime.
Talk about some possible remedies that you see. For example, in Italy, voting is done all day Sunday as well as half a day on Monday. Tuesday people work in the U.S. Polls usually open at 6 AM. They close as early as 7 PM.
Your chances of voting, whether in LA or East Harlem, are not very good under those conditions. Americans are enormously overworked. But there are a lot of things we could do if we wanted to. The political resistance to doing what we should do is also going to be huge. I think there will be support and some money for new voting machines. All of the other obvious reforms are going to be excruciatingly difficult. Election day should be a holiday, whether it's on a weekend or whether we declare it a holiday. It is a holiday everywhere among democratic countries, but not in the U.S. It isn't as if no politician ever thought, Well, maybe if people didn't have to go to work on that day more of them would vote. Of course they know that. That's why it's a working day and not a holiday. That's why we don't have weekend voting.
Same-day voter registration might help. We could implement the National Voter Registration Act the way the law says. It's now implemented in driver's license bureaus, but very spottily in the public welfare agencies, the WIC agencies, the Medicaid agencies that are required by law to offer voter registration typically do not. We could introduce reforms that would at least modify the impact of winner-take-all elections, instant runoff, for example, in the Electoral College, so that the Electoral College for a particular state does not all go for one candidate or the other. Those who had less than 50 percent would also be represented.
What do you think of proportional representation? Ralph Nader's Green Party got 2.7 million votes, yet with the winner-take-all system it counts for nothing.
Instant runoff is actually a step toward proportional representation. It would only apply to the Electoral College. Proportional representation would be excellent. It would mean that candidates who had less than 50 percent of the vote would also have some representation in our legislative bodies. That would be a good thing, and it would make it possible also for third parties, fourth parties, fifth parties, for diversity to be cultivated in our electoral politics. But for just that reason the opposition to these sorts of reforms is enormous within the established two-party system.
You don't see them as a source for reform.
It's a little bit too procedural a reform to spark excitement. But of course it would be better. We need campaign finance reform. We don't really know how to do that. We know how to plug some of the holes, but we basically don't know how to get money out of our elections. We should try to do what we can, but it's an enormous problem. People know it. It's one of the reasons for not voting.
One of the anomalies of the last few years from the mid to the late 1990s is that there was a substantial increase in registration, but that didn't translate into an increase in turnout. Why is that?
It did in some places where there were minority candidates running or where there was intense minority commitment to the election. Black turnout rose in Florida, for example. The fact that people were already registered through motor voter helped to explain why turnout could rise. But those examples give an answer to your question. If you increase registration, what you've done is helped a lot of people overcome one of the procedural barriers to voting. But by eliminating procedural barriers, you don't make voting more exciting, more meaningful. That's the job of the parties. The best we can hope for is that creating a larger enfranchised electorate, a larger number of registered voters, will create the room, the incentive, the opportunity for more insurgencies of the kind that Nader mounted in 2000, insurgencies that can also occur within the major parties.
Let's say someone was interested in these issues you've been talking about, what organizations might they connect with?
Public Campaign is a good organization working on campaign finance reform. The Center for Responsive Politics on campaign finance reform. The Center for Voting and Democracy has made proportional representation their premier issue. The specific issues having to do with the discriminatory administration of election laws are being advanced by the Legal Defense Fund, used to be the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and by the NAACP. Those are the main ones that come to mind. The labor unions have begun not only to try to use their funds to fund the Democratic Party candidate, something I'm never enthusiastic for, but have also begun to try to invest more in their own voter turnout efforts, and that's a good thing, too. Z
David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio (firstname.lastname@example.org: www.alternativeradio.org) in Boulder, Colorado. His lastest books are Confronting Empire and The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting.