Comments: What do you think?

Do you have a theory about why people don't vote? Myself, I've been thinking that people don't vote because the time frames are non-responsive. To elect the House, which is supposed to be the People's Voice, every 2 years may have seemed fine in 1788, but things move a little faster now? I've wondered if some sort of radical speed up might make it more interesting again. If we voted the whole House every year, instead of every 2 years, at least then we could keep up an annual response to the President. If we voted every 6 months, instead o every 2 years, then the President would really have to think about how the people were going to react to each policy, because they'd be able to voice their disapproval in a short amount of time.

But I'd like to see particapatory democracy within a representative framework, so I'd like the people to be able to offer continuous feedback. I'd like to see us vote the whole House on the first of each month. That would make the House quite volataile, which is what it is supposed to be. The Senate and the President and the Supreme Court are there to offer stability, the House is the place where the immediate passions and impulses of the people are supposed to be represented. Once a month voting would also mean the big, expensive elections would have to be abandoned, at least for House members. Everything about those monthly votes would have to be streamlined, and I suspect the process of streamlining them would make them more particapatory. Turnout for any one vote would probably be low, but the annual turnout might be higher than now.

Of course, this is all just speculation on my part. I imagine at some point, someone, some place will do something to revive participation in elections. Otherwise, what will happen?

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at May 19, 2004 03:38 PM

Any theories I have are probably ideas I distilled from The Vanishing Voter.

I think, presidentially, the problem is with the "presumptive nominee" where those states that aren't among the first half-dozen to have primaries don't really have a say in what candidate their campaign will choose. As I was reading recently (I regret I don't remember where), the Democratic nominee this year was actually more or less decided by votes in states where most of the voters seem to be Republicans. Perhaps a "red" state isn't the place to select a "blue" candidate who isn't centrist?

I say...proportion. It's all about proportion. From the primary to the election, divvy out the votes proportionately in every state according to the percentage of vote the presidential nominee gets. A voter in a "blue" state has to feel their "red" vote counts and vice-versa.

But to put it briefly, I don't think the two-year time frame is the issue. As for House, yes, the House is supposed to be the most responsive and that's why the two-year cycle, but all it really means in today's climate is that House members spend their entire lives campaigning and fundraising.

Being constantly up for "re-election" does mean they have to remain responsive, but that doesn't result in more voters turning out for those elections, does it? So it's not working and a shorter election cycle isn't the answer. Similarly, one-year, or one-month terms (you're quite the radical!) would only exacerbate the problem. (Plus which, I strongly doubt anyone would pay attention to an election if there was another one coming next month.)

The problem there, of course, is gerrymandered districts. People may not know they live in a gerrymandered district, but they sure know that their district has never returned a candidate they wanted in office. Is it any wonder people become discouraged and stop voting?

Split up districts by population with no reference to any other demographic and no weird shapes. The courts, or a special bi-partisan committee should do this but only in full public view. The entire process has to be 100% transparent.

Get a map. Get a table. Get a tv camera. Get lots of cameras. Draw lines. Get a fancy pen. Make everyone present sign the bottom. Fine anyone who whines or files suit to make changes. (That last is a joke.) Repeat after every census as needed.

Then let candidates run on their merits. More elections will be up in the air which means more candidates will be elected whose positions actually suit the mood of the public at that time.

Feedback? We already have continuous feedback. From a history working with one government agency, I can promise you that when a voter picks up the phone and calls their congressperson . . . things happen.

If ten people call about the same issue . . . things really happen. (Those carbon-copy e-mail campaigns have impact, but less impact than an individually written letter and a lot less impact than a phone call.)

I think that if people felt their votes counted, they'd care more about voting. If they felt government was more responsive, they'd demand more responsibility. But for part of that, we have to be the ones to take action. Government can't be responsive if we don't stand up and articulate what we expect from it. (The wingnuts, from both sides, tend to stand up, and that's how we got where we are today.)

There's little most of us can do about the current crop in Washington. They're going to be responsive to the demographic that elected them in order to win re-election.

But. If you talk, most of them are going to listen even if you're from the "wrong party" because they hope that you'll cross party lines (many people do on the congressional or state level) to vote for them if you approve of them.

State elections are almost the same as congressional ones. It's hard for us to point the finger at government and say it isn't responsive when we're not making our voices heard.

We're "too busy." We don't think state or local politics has anything to do with us. We don't have time to figure out the issues. We don't care one way or the other. We have a lot of excuses and we get the government we deserve.

It's a Catch-22 and I promise you that government isn't going to be the first to step up to the place and break the impasse. From the point of view of most representatives, they're being responsive to those voters they actually hear from, and trying to communicate with the others.

Democracy isn't a free ride. It requires some effort. It requires (in this country) a really minimal investment of time and energy. The fact that many of us aren't willing to make that investment but feel free to bitch about how things are infuriates me. (I'm not ranting at you...I just got started ranting. As I tend to do.)

Democracy isn't born in you, like learning to chew your food. You have to be taught. We don't teach that.

Posted by Anne at May 19, 2004 04:22 PM

The Texas execution made me cry with RAGE today. I'm still beside myself over it.

And I love your last three sentences of your comment above. Amen.

Posted by Hugo at May 19, 2004 06:25 PM

Like Hugo, I think those last 3 sentences are terrific. Still, personally, I suspect exhortations urging people to get involved are not going to have any useful effect. People, generally, crave power, so there must be some reason why so many don't exercise one of the most important powers they possess.

As to gerrymandering, another idea for avoiding it is to make districts so small that they are immune to manipulation, no matter how foul and evil the people are drawing up the districts. This is yet another radical idea, though this one was, at least, discussed during the Constitutional debates of 1787 - 1788, so it has some heritage. In the present moment, it represents a fairly radical idea. Imagine if there was a district for every 100,000 people - we'd need 3,000 members in the House of Represenatitives. Or imagine there was a district for every 50,000 people - we'd have 6,000 representatives in the House. Possibly impractical, but on the bright side, if the districts were as small as 50,000, everyone would get real representation. There isn't much room for manipulating a district that small.

In 1788 Melancton Smith felt that such large assemblies were impractical at the Federal level, yet he felt they were the only way to achieve real democracy, so he fought on the Anti-Federalist side of the debate. Only the States had the kind of representation that he respected. Nowadays, we cars and airplanes, it seems to me at least possible to have the Federal level what we had then at the state level. Smith suggested that America should have 200 representatives for the House, and this was back when America had only 3 million people. We now have close to 300 million people, so if we followed Smith's suggestion we would now have 20,000 Representatives in the House. He felt this was impractical and maybe he was right but it is interesting to consider his reasoning. I quote him at length here:

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at May 19, 2004 10:31 PM

Lawrence, I think you miss the fundamental point. People don't see voting as exercising power. They see it as an exercise in futility.

I look forward to reading the link you provided, but my first thought about your suggestion is that a House of 3,000 people is simply too large a body to accomplish much. I suspect they'd quickly become a semi-organized rabble, lobbying the smaller Senate where the real power would no doubt soon rest.

I'm not inherently against the idea of us all clubbing together and hiring lobbyists to sit in Washington and agitate for what we want, but turning the House into such a group removes one of our legitimate direct lines to government and, I might add, unbalances the current (more or less) balance of power.

Now you've got me thinking. Maybe the essential futility of voting has a much to do with being one vote of three hundred million as anything else?

When looked at that way, the impact of a single vote is, in fact, insignificant.

Democracy is essentially a hands-on government but the idea of 300,000,000 people each having a personal finger in the pie is laughable.

It may be that a healthy, functioning democracy is incompatible with a large population.

Posted by Anne at May 20, 2004 08:18 AM

Right, a very large House is impracticale. In the winter of 1788, that was part of the Anti-Federalist argument against consolidating power at the Federal level. The additional aspect of the argument is that people did have that kind of representation at the state level, therefore power should remain at the state level.

In the winter of 1995 I read over the whole Federalist versus Anti-federalist debate. It seemed relevant at the time because Newt Gingrich was at the height of his power and he was borrowing some rhetoric from the Anti-Federalists to criticize the size of the Federal government in 1995. His momentary strength, 207 years after the formation of the current government, made me aware that the Anti-Federal tradition had never entirely died, it's just tended to lose most of the big fights over the last 2 centuries. Their arguments in favor of decentralized power still strike me as worth considering. If a large House is impracticle, then maybe we should do what we can to see power pushed down to the state level, or even the county and city level.

I do agree with you that people don't feel like they are exercising power when they vote. I'm not sure what I said that gave you the impression I felt otherwise. Nevertheless, you and I know that people are, in fact, wielding power when they vote. And the question I was asking is why people feel powerless at a moment when they are in fact weilding power. I said above, in the comments, that I don't think exhorting people to vote will cause them to vote. I think we need to find out why they feel powerless when they are in fact exercising power, and we need to address whatever the cause of that feeling is.

While I agree with you that a House with 3,000 people is impracticle, I also think we need to keep an open mind about examining impracticale ideas. "It's not practical" is the one of the oldest and most used reasons for resisting democracy. People felt it wasn't practical to give black people the vote. Earlier, people felt it wasn't practical to give property-less men the right to vote. King Charles, before they cut off his head, told Parliment that democracy was not very practical.

Ultimately, democracy does need to make some accomodations to practicality. But we also, from time to time, need to be willing to challenge our own assumptions about what is really practical. Because, clearly, different generations have had very different ideas about what is ultimately practical.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at May 20, 2004 11:05 AM

I wrote "If a large House is impracticle, then maybe we should do what we can to see power pushed down to the state level, or even the county and city level."

I hope it was clear that I'm saying that if people can be better represented at the lower levels of government, then perhaps that is where power should concentrate. It strikes me that aligning power with actual representation (I mean quality of representation) is an important aspect of healthy self-government. Certainly it is a step toward avoiding the "us versus them" attitude (the people versus the government) that flared up on the Right in 1994 - 1995 and on the left repeatedly since 1968.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at May 20, 2004 11:11 AM

You wrote: "It may be that a healthy, functioning democracy is incompatible with a large population."

As you may know, this was this was the essence of the Anti-Federalist argument in 1787 - 1788.

Madison made a famous reply in Federalist #10, in which he argued that all previous democracies (for instance, all Greek city-states) had been torn apart by factions, and so, he concluded, the only way democracy could survive is if it was very large - large enough that it would have so many factions that no coalition of factions would ever be able to win a permanent majority.

These were his words:

"The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary."

This apparently was a winning argument. It was certainly quite novel at the time. Since then we've had 207 years of increasingly democratic rule and a growing population. Some adjustments have been necessary, and there have been moments of crisis, and moments when the legitimacy of the government was held in question. The declining voter partipation rate strikes me as calling for another period of adjustment.

I'm sure I've already bored you to tears with my thoughts on this subject, but if for some strange reason you want to read more, last year I wrote some thoughts about Federalist #10 which you can find here:

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at May 20, 2004 11:25 AM

Okay -

Post #1 - I'm thinking about this one for a while.

Post #2 - I did understand that in your original post but in my eyes, clarification is never wasted, so thank you.

#3 - As it happens, I've been diving back into both The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist writings recently, which is no doubt where most of my arguments on this subject are coming from.

However, the strongest argument I can remember (but from where?) against weakening the federal government too far in favor of strengthening states is the realization that the federal government exists, in part, to even out inequities between states to keep the population all more or less equally secure and stable.

It's better for us as a nation if Nevada's wealth doesn't stand in stark and embarrassing contrast to Arkansas's abject poverty. If we are "one nation" then the nation needs to stand, or fall, as a unit.

It's wrong that a child in Mississippi doesn't get public education because his state can't afford it, while Maryland's kids have schools with saunas and horseback riding lessons.

I'm far from being tired of reading or talking about the subject but as it's after 3:00 in the afternoon, I do feel I should put in a few gentle minutes pushing around work-related documents.

I'll read the post you linked to tonight and thanks for providing it.

Posted by Anne at May 20, 2004 03:22 PM