|As if this record weren't bad enough,
the 29th Legislature, just adjourned, has taken some actions which make
sure that we will continue this miserable kind of performance. In addition
to cutting down the time for registration and continuing the literacy test,
your legislators in Phoenix have decided to wipe out your registration
and mine -- all registrations -- as of the day following the 1970 general
election. This means that all of us -- the voter and non-voter, the poor,
the rich, the invalids and the healthy -- will have to start from scratch,
find out where registering is being done, and get ourselves registered
by the next deadline.
A lot of people are going to get tripped up in
the process. And, for the most part, they will be the least sophisticated,
the least articulate, the least affluent -- in short, the kind of people
who carry the least weight in influencing the policies of their government
and therefore have the most to lose.
Of course, you can make a philosophical case for
this kind of legislation. I strongly believe this philosophy is bad news
for a state or a nation, for conservatives, liberals and all who believe
our democracy can be kept intact. But let's take a look at its logic, and
then at the opposite philosophy.
When I express dismay that 500,000 Arizonans or
47 million Americans didn't vote in 1968, some politicians will tell me
privately and candidly that this is good. They first make the largely false
assumption that these non-voters are mostly just lazy and disinterested.
Then they ask: aren't we better off to make it tough and inconvenient to
register and vote? The result, they say, is that the big decisions are
made by that segment of the adult population which is better educated,
more informed, more stable, more affluent, and which cares enough to protect
its right to vote.
Implied in all of this (and frankly stated by
some Arizona Republicans with whom I talk) is the belief that low participation
is good for Republicans and conservatives, and bad for Democrats and liberals.
I'm not sure that notion is well founded -- at least it's badly shaken
by the near-record low turnout (53%) of 1948 which elected Truman
instead of Dewey, as contrasted with the near-record high turnout
(63%) which elected Eisenhower over Stevenson four years later.
But for argument let's assume its truth: i.e.,
if Republicans control the legislature and if they can restrict voting
participation enough, they'll give their party a built-in advantage for
the future. While this may be good short-run politics, I respectfully suggest
that, in the long run, it could be disastrous for all political parties
and for the country.
We can follow the first philosophy and fight these
old battles with maybe some temporary advantage for one political party
or the other, but eventually this kind of approach may destroy the system
which has worked better than any other. Think about this: how long can
a political system remain workable when half or nearly half its people
are being shut out of major elections? How long can a system which remains
complacent about such numbers of non-voters retain the trust and confidence
of those millions of its citizens?
As for me, I subscribe to a second -- and vastly
different -- philosophy. It's one which goes back to Jefferson, Madison,
Franklin and Washington. It deals
|with "democracy" and the idea that
ultimate power resides in the
people -- not just an elite segment
thereof -- and that the major choices concerning who is to govern us must
be made by nearly all of us. When we see our country threatening to come
"unglued," its people confused with divisions, hatreds and uncertainties
such as we see today, we ought to be concerned with more than temporary
partisan electoral advantage.
'STAY IN THE SYSTEM'
As we start this new decade which will mark the
bi-centennial of the Declaration of Independence, our nation is in a time
of troubles. At times it seems that the very fabric of our society is going
to pull apart. Many of our sons and daughters, whom we taught to have ideals
and to strive for the best, see all too clearly many of our imperfections
and want to change things now. In response they are being told:
in the system. Work through the political process." I agree with that
advice, but I think we had better take a look at that system and that process
if we expect our advice to be heeded.
Our system rests on a basic faith that all of
our people will make the right decisions. On occasion, they may be confused
by a demagogue or led astray by passion and prejudice, but our system stands
or falls on the proposition that in the long run our people will pick the
right course. In this philosophy we deliberately grant the maid or waitress,
laborer or truck driver, or the newly naturalized citizen the same vote
as the stock broker or college professor. We give each one a vote whether
he speaks Harvard English or the broken accents of Mexico, whether he watches
Huntley-Brinkley or "Petticoat Junction," whether he reads the editorial
pages of the New York Times or just the comic pages of the Daily
And somehow, it's worked so far. It was the ordinary
voter who somehow sensed in 1932 that the country needed Roosevelt and
some kind of basic change; he didn't fully understand all the intellectual
arguments in 1952, but he somehow felt Eisenhower should be picked to end
Asian war and give us a time of retrenchment after 20 years of Democratic
rule. And so it went in 1960 when a small majority rejected Richard Nixon,
and in 1968 when another small majority, in a different mood, elected him.
America followed this participatory philosophy
without reservation until nearly 1900; prior to that time few states even
had registration laws. Populations were small and stationary, and people
who showed up to vote could be quickly identified. In the 1876 election
this approach produced an 82% turnout -- the kind of performance the British
still get in the 1970's. But two developments began a sharp and opposite
trend. As our cities grew, machine politics brought "cemetery voting" and
other frauds: registration was seen as a necessary protection. And in the
South the move to disfranchise the black man found complicated and restrictive
registration a valuable tool.
By 1904 voting participation nationally had dropped
to 65%, and by 1920 a minority of adults (49%) made the presidential choice.
In the state of Texas the drop was even more dramatic -- from 88% in 1896
to 30% in 1904, where it remained for half a century.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
This is a bleak and discouraging picture I've