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Why Americans Don't Vote.

Why Americans Don't Vote. Frances Fox Piven, Richard A. Cloward. Pantheon, $19.95. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy established a commission to recommend ways to enhance voter participation. Its findings, reported shortly after his untimely death, urged among other things: the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests; the enfranchisement of blacks and 18- to 20-year-old youths; a shortened period between the close of registration and election day; mail registration; bilingual ballots; and various voter outreach programs. With one inconsequential exception, all of the commission's 18 recommendations have been adopted in whole or in part. Yet over the past 25 years, voter turnout has declined by nearly 20 percent in presidential elections-and more than 20 percent in mid-term elections-so that the United States now has the lowest rate of voter participation of any democracy in the world.

Enter Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, arguing that the principal obstacles to enhanced voter turnout and to the mobilization of the American underclass are registration laws and administrative procedures. This assertion flies in the face of:

*Data that shows that in North Dakota, which has no registration barriers because it has no personal registration, the decline in voter participation in the last decade has been substantially greater than that of the nation as a whole, and that in Wisconsin and Minnesota, after an initial surge in voter participation following the adoption of election day registration in those states, voter participation has been declining more steeply than in the rest of the nation.

*Election results that show a sharp increase in turnout in 1982 (as compared to 1978), despite no increase in registration, and a sharp decrease in turnout in 1986 (as compared to 1982), despite a sharp increase in registration.

Something about this book reminds one of the sign"My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts." None of this is to suggest that voting laws and procedures do not pose obstacles for some citizens and should not be liberalized. But the authors' monomaniacal concern with registration law obscures important issues they themselves raise. For instance, they convincingly refute the idea that nonvoting is symptomatic of a satisfied society "No one has satisfactorily explained," they argue, "why the politics of happiness 'is so consistently concentrated among the least well off'"

The authors correctly attribute pan of the decline to the increasing disinclination of both parties to mobilize nonvoters and particularly that of the Democratic party to appeal to the nonvoting underclass. And they accurately attribute the Democratic disinclination to the bureaucratization, ossification, and gerontofication of the American labor movement, which has in recent years sought to defend its diminishing position rather than expand its base.

In a larger sense, any book that attempts to explain why Americans don't vote and does not address a more adversarial attitude between citizen and government; a more selfseeking attitude on the part of the individual citizen; mass media that increasingly sees its role, to paraphrase Neil Postman, as amusing Americans to death; weak misaligned parties without a mass message; a dearth of national direction; a decline in the quality of education in general and civic education in particular; the role of message-obfuscating political consultants; an erosion of responsive government and its ability to anticipate and address long-term problems; a decline in standards of probity of government leaders; the increasing costs of campaigns and concomitant increasing dependence on moneyed interests; and the increasing complexity of the average citizen's life, is simply not a serious attempt to understand the problem.

-Curtis R Gans
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Author:Gans, Curtis B.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1988
Words:589
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