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QUESTION: On Wednesday, October 10 a joint report from the Bipartisan Policy Center and Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that the national primary turnout fell to the lowest level since presidential primaries proliferated in 1972.

Will voters turnout for the general election and is this indicative of increasing polarization in our politics?

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By Curtis Gans

Throughout the summer and through the major party conventions the prevailing view inside the Washington Beltway was that the 2012 presidential election would be a high turnout, extremely close contest that could very well be decided by which party does a better job of motivating its base constituencies to vote. There is increasing reason to question each of these assumptions.

The case for high turnout rested, in essence, on three factors: the condition of the economy in general and unemployment in particular, the deep polarization between the two major parties and summer polls of citizen interest in the election. Historically, almost every recent election that was held coincident with high unemployment and perceptions of recession (e.g. 1982, 1992 and 2008) had high turnout. Polarization (2004) and polarization-plus in the unique and perceived transformative candidacy of Barack Obama (2008) produced the highest turnouts since 1960 and 1968 respectively. And summer polls by the Pew Center and Gallup showed potential voter interest running at about the same level (around 27 percent of the electorate paying close attention to the race) as at a similar time during the two previous presidential elections.

But there are contrary indicators. Viewership for both major party conventions was more than 10 percent less than in 2008. Turnout in the 2012 primaries tumbled to a record low. Recent polls on voter interest, particularly by Pew, show a post-convention decline in voter interest of about 10 percent when compared to the same time in 2008. Also, according to a Pew survey, voters’ positive feelings about the candidates has been at the lowest level since 1992. Emotional connection among Republicans with their nominee has been weak and among Democrats diminished, at least compared to 2008. Many Tea Party oriented Republicans do not trust Mitt Romney’s commitment to their values. Many centrist Republicans are appalled at what their party has become. Youth no longer see in both politics and the president the change that drew them to the political barricades in 2008. Hope for something better in the next four years is in short supply. The visible campaign is dominated by a deluge of attack ads, often on the lowest level of content, surely reducing the impulse to vote. Polarization does manifest itself in the advocacy of each major party, but there’s a large segment of the public that’s longing for something in between that might produce compromise leading to positive public policy and not finding it. There are also long-term factors – the erosion of the religion of civic duty, the diminution of attention to the development of citizens in the educational system, the decline of the commons called the newspaper, the atomization and fragmentation caused by each succeeding development in communications technology, the reduction of hope as a major byproduct of progressive income inequality and lack of trust in political leadership, to name but a few. Despite the mobilization efforts of both parties and the reality that this is an election of substantial consequence with respect to the role and reach of government, it would be surprising if the 2012 election was a high turnout election. If there is a 10 percent decline in turnout compared to 2008, there would be 95 million eligible citizens who would not vote. If turnout declined to the level of the election of 2000, as many as 100 million citizens might eschew the ballot box. (It should be noted that low turnout per se has no partisan effect. The central question with respect to result is not how many turn out to vote but rather who does.)

Similarly, there are some early indications that the race may not be as close as previously predicted. But it also might not go the way polls have been trending There are pollsters and academics who argue that most of those who call themselves independents are really supporters of one of the major parties and that the percentage of the electorate that is truly undecided is between six and seven percent. Thus according to them, there will not be much movement. But the nominal partisan support of the majority of independents is soft support, very much capable of change, and there are weak partisans within both parties. After the first debate, the relative standing between the candidates shifted a full 12 percentage points in the most recent Pew poll after the first debate.

If Obama performs no better in the next two presidential debates, if the next snapshot on unemployment at the end of October reverts to a figure over eight percent and if the Obama campaign doesn’t do a better job of providing contrast on character and vision for the next four years, Obama could lose by a wide margin. On the other hand, if in the ensuing weeks, Romney is again seen as a person who will advocate anything to be elected, if he continues to refuse to reveal the details of his program on the economy and taxes, if his very real weaknesses and lack of experience in foreign policy is highlighted and if he makes missteps between now and the election that once again undermine his potential bond with average citizens, the pendulum could swing again strongly in favor of Obama. The vice-presidential debate, given the known entity known as Biden and the unknown and comparatively inexperienced entity known as Ryan could have a larger influence than such debates in the past.

The election could be as close as it was in 1948 when Harry Truman slipped back into office in the second lowest turnout contest since women were given the vote in 1920. This year’s turnout won’t be that low but it is also not writ in stone that it will be a close election. The situation is volatile and many things could happen that would determine both winner and margin. Stay tuned.

The Photo ID Drama

For those who might be seeking some clarity in the highly partisan, largely demagogic debate over newly minted requirements for photo identification at the polls that have been adopted by several states with majority Republican legislatures and governors, let me introduce you to Jim Scott.

Scott, a personal friend of 54 years standing and fellow graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, has had a career that has included two masters degrees; leading an effective organization advocating for affordable housing in Fairfax County, Virginia; and serving for several years on the county’s board of supervisors — all of which led to a 1991 run for the state legislature in an election which he won by one vote after two recounts. He is illustrative of why even a little bit of fraud in the voting process and even a little bit of voter suppression is akin to being a little bit pregnant. That little bit can have a large effect on outcomes.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have covered themselves with honor on this issue.

If the Republican legislatures that enacted photo ID requirements for voting had in all cases generously provided them for free, made the documentation necessary for getting an ID free and simple and made access to IDs easy, their case that they were simply attempting to deter fraud would be fully defensible. But in some states registered citizens need to pay for both documentation and the ID card itself and in others, they need to pay for one or the other which is, in effect, a poll tax. When cards are available only in registrars or department of motor vehicles offices when the majority of the registered without photo identification – the old, the young, the poor and minorities – don’t drive and need assistance to get places, the requirement creates a barrier to participation. And when the party sponsors legislation as in Florida that would severely cripple voter registration drives (mercifully overturned in court) or seeks in Nevada to eliminate a legal provision enacted 36 years ago to encourage potential voters to go to the polling place rather than sitting home by giving them an option of voting for “none of the above,” it is clear that the GOP is pursuing an agenda beyond fraud protection.

The Democrats, on the other hand, instead of challenging the cost and availability of IDs in court, chose to attack the concept of photo ID itself – despite the fact that the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, upheld the principle of such laws and, according to polls, photo identification is supported by nearly two-thirds of the electorate. They defended their position by minimizing the existence of fraud and creating scare headlines that five million Americans, particularly the young and those of color, might be denied the vote. The trouble with the first argument is that fraud, while not a major problem (except in the case of absentee ballots) exists. Citizens register and vote in more than one state, sometimes vote more than once in the same state, non-citizens have, in places, cast a substantial number of ballots and there are millions of invalid names on registration lists offering the temptation to vote in the names of the invalid, something mercifully now not done often. The trouble with the second argument is that in 2008, the states with the most restrictive photo identification requirements, Georgia and Indiana, both recorded record high turnouts driven, in major part, by the votes of African-Americans.

It is incandescently clear that the GOP still believes that lower turnout benefits their party (despite some evidence to the contrary) and that the party would like lower turnout particularly of the young, poor and minorities. It is equally clear that the Democrats evince little concern about the integrity of the political process so long as they can, one way or another, maximize their vote.

With regard to the 2012 election, it is likely that the Democrats will find the wherewithal and the organization to ensure that most of the registered who want to vote will have the requisite ID. It is equally likely that the Republicans via legal poll watching and unethical threatening phone calls will forestall all attempts to cast a fraudulent vote and perhaps deter some non-fraudulent ballots particularly among minorities. The Democrats, in turn, will have their poll watchers ensure that qualified voters have not been purged from registration lists and that provisional ballots are given to those without the requisite identification and will be counted when that identification is produced. And both parties will have heavily populated phone lines for reporting poll problems that affect their interests, a battery of lawyers at the ready to challenge each real and imagined deviation from election law or procedure and millions of dollars to ensure their respective interests are protected.

In the process both parties will be continuing a biennial dance of one party claiming potential fraud and the other claiming suppression and intimidation, eroding the public’s faith in the election process and doing absolutely nothing about the two major underlying problems that make these claims and counter-claims possible.

There are more than 50 million age-eligible American citizens who are not registered and therefore cannot vote.

There are more than 20 million names on registration rolls that are invalid and an invitation to abuse.

The first of these problems owes itself to an American political system that put the burden on the individual citizen to qualify herself or himself for voting through registration and often re-registration should one change residences. In almost all other advanced democracies, government provides the list of those eligible and all the citizen need to do is show up at a polling place and vote.

The second of these problems is caused by dependence in the American political system on lists of those who are registered to maintain the integrity of the voting process, lists that even the most intrepid election officials cannot accurately maintain.

Both problems could be alleviated if the United States adopted what Mexico has already initiated – a mandatory, government provided and paid for biometric ID. Under such a system, the requirement for registration would be eliminated and all eligible citizens (including the now disenfranchised 50 million) could vote by showing up at the appropriate polling place and matching their in-person biometric with that on the card. There would by virtue of this system never be inaccuracies in the voting lists. There would be no need to spend enormous sums on voting list maintenance. And all potential forms of fraud could be eliminated – except for vote buying and actions by dishonorable election officials. Mexico went from one of the most corrupt electoral systems in the world to arguably the most pristine.

To adopt such a system in the United States would require overcoming two hurdles – cost and the perception that such a system would constitute a major new invasion of privacy.

The upfront cost of such a system, according to an estimate provided to the Carter/Baker commission on electoral reform is more than $14 billion. Historically, the United States has not expended that level of funds for its electoral system. It has, however, expended that and many times more on national defense, and a front line of national defense and homeland security should be to know who is living in the United States and traveling to and from it – knowledge that such a system would provide.

If such a system were in place it could serve a number of important, necessary and desirable functions, including but not limited to: providing a better way of dealing with immigration issues (who should go or stay, have a work permit or be tracked for citizenship) than a fence and questionable law enforcement; making more accurate criminal prosecution and wrongful conviction exoneration, generating an accurate census without enumeration and reducing identity theft.

It could serve as one’s drivers’ license and vehicle registration, one’s social security and Medicare cards, one’s registration for potential military service and one’s passport. It could be used as a repository for one’s medical records, one’s will, one’s bank and credit card accounts and, conceivably, as it is used in Mexico, for commerce.

All of which is to suggest that the positive benefits of such a system are enormous and go way beyond aiding enfranchisement and eliminating fraud.

There is, however, the question of privacy, for which there are four answers:

  1. In reality Americans no longer have privacy. Thanks to modern communications technology, there are no secrets left.
  2. However, for all uses other than national defense and law enforcement, it is possible to program the readers of an ID to take only the information that’s useful for that purpose (e.g. for voting: name, address, age, citizenship and where necessary, party affiliation).
  3. That would not be true, of course, for national defense or law enforcement for which the only remedy is criminal penalties for abuse.
  4. Such penalties need to be coupled with an independent ombudsman to whom citizens could repair should they believe their privacy was illegally violated.

Something of this magnitude would need to be vetted by a high-level bipartisan commission including leaders with credentials in national defense, law enforcement and all other major potential uses of such a system. In order to make possible such dramatic change, this commission would need to explore the desirability, feasibility, applicability, interoperability, implementation and cost (and cost savings) of such a system, along with the ways to protect citizens from its abuse.

But the positive benefits of such a system are great and the potential downside risk is very low. When states are implementing identity systems that will reduce the impulse to vote and various branches and levels of government are implementing many different and incompatible ID systems, the time to consider a new approach and a new paradigm to the identification issue is now.

Curtis Gans is Director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

The commentary presented above represent the personal views of Curtis Gans and should not be considered the views of the Bipartisan Policy Center or any other institution or individual.

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