We Can Get Out of These Ruts
Every time I talk to people who have no health care, or to families without the means to find a good education for their children, or to pensioners who have lost their pensions, I am reminded that we have lost our capacity to imagine something better for our country. But we don't have to keep doing things that aren't working.
In the same spirit, we don't have to accept our continued dependence on oil as an immutable fact of life. Nor do we have to live with our counterproductive tax code. There are good alternatives, if we can overcome the paucity of imagination that has afflicted us for too long. But we can break out of the ruts we are in only by improving our politics.
Given that real power rests with the people and not the elected, the most discouraging thing about our current politics is that fewer than half of those eligible to vote did so in 1996 and 2000, and only 61 percent voted in the heavily contested presidential election of 2004. Off-year congressional election turnout ranges from 35 to 40 percent.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance compared voter turnout in national elections from 1945 to 1998 in 140 countries. Italy ranked first, with 92 percent, and the United States was 139th, with an average turnout of 48 percent. Why is voter turnout so low here?
There is a practical reason. Tuesday is an inconvenient day for voting. Imagine men and women who have to be at work by 8 in the morning and who get docked or possibly fired if they're late. They awake an hour early to get to the polls, which generally open at 7 a.m. The long line moves slowly; some have to leave for work before they reach the voting booth. By the time they return at the end of the day -- if they make it through traffic and arrange for someone to pick up their kids from after-school activities -- they may find even longer lines of people like them trying to vote after work.
Why do we make a citizen's most sacred democratic duty so inconvenient? Why Tuesday? I'll bet you can't tell me. Be honest.
Tuesday was established as Election Day in 1845 so that all Americans could vote on the same day. So why Tuesday? Saturday was a workday. Sunday was the Sabbath. It could take a whole day to travel to the polls in that horse-and-buggy age, so Monday was out. That left Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday in many places was market day, so by default -- Tuesday.
It's still Tuesday, but the horse and buggy are gone and the two-earner family has arrived, juggling stressful professional and family responsibilities. While 94 percent of those surveyed in a joint poll in the fall of 2005 by the Tarrance Group and Lake, Snell, Perry, Mermin/Decision Research said that "voting is an important civic duty that everyone should do," more than a third of those who usually don't vote said that the reason is because they are "too busy/didn't have time/working."
The antidote is to make voting easier. Election Day should be moved to Saturday and Sunday. If we give people two weekend days, turnout should increase. Weekend voting would not disrupt the school day. People could take their children to the polls, thereby inculcating the importance of voting. The same poll found that those who said they would be more likely to vote on a weekend are in the largest nonvoter groups -- African Americans, 18- to 34-year-olds, Hispanics, singles and working women.
The answer to the problems of democracy is more democracy. As Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina says, "If the presidential electorate were to double and the off-year electorate to nearly triple, it is likely that parties and candidates would make different appeals to capture the support of new voters who would now be showing up at the polls." Increasing the size of the electorate to 80 percent of eligible voters would have as big an impact on our democracy as enfranchising women and blacks did. If democracy is about all of us, then as many of us as possible must vote. Otherwise democracy functions only for some of us, and many of our basic problems don't get addressed -- our dependence on oil, for example.
President Bush correctly observed in 2006 that "America is addicted to oil." The United States is the world's most profligate consumer of oil, using 25 percent of the global supply. China, which has four times as many people, consumes 7 percent.
The largest tax that Americans have paid over the past five years has been assessed not by our government but by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. In 2001, OPEC's average price of crude oil was $23.12 per barrel. In 2005, it was $50.71, the equivalent of a tax increase of more than $55 billion. If you bought just 16 gallons of gas per week (a tankful) in 2005, you were paying $500 more per year for gasoline than you were in 2001. When you factor in the hundreds of billions paid for two wars in the Persian Gulf region in 15 years, a part of whose purpose related to oil, this addiction has cost taxpayers far more than costlier gasoline and heating oil. Yet our government has done almost nothing to deal with our dependence on oil, especially our dependence on insecure sources of foreign oil.