Why Americans Still Donx92t Vote

David Barsamian

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.

Why Americans Still Don’t Vote was recently updated with the “Still”
added to the title.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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 (ar@orci.com:
www.alternativeradio.org) in Boulder, Colorado. His lastest books are

Confronting Empire and The Decline and Fall of Public