The Other Political Scandal

Low voter turnout provides an opportunity for business.

It's been refreshingly quiet on the Monica Lewinsky front lately. Other matters -- like the midterm election, Newt's departure, John Glenn's return to space, the Mideast peace negotiations, the budget deal, and the World Series -- have pushed the White House sex scandal off the talk shows and front pages. But, alas, only for awhile. With the House Judiciary Committee launching its impeachment hearings, Monicagate figures to come roaring back into the media spotlight. Meanwhile, another political scandal -- just as outrageous and shameful as President Clinton's moral and legal transgressions -- has gotten relatively little attention. Yet its implications are far-reaching, threatening no less than the very fiber of American democracy. The scandal: the low turnout of U.S. voters at last Tuesday's election. Although the number of registered voters is up (thanks to the 1993 "motor-voter" law that allows people to register when they apply for or renew drivers' licenses), only an estimated 36% of them made it to the polls, continuing a trend that has been apparent for years. And a shamefully low percentage of the eligible population is even registered. Equally scandalous, there seems to be no overwhelming outrage over the voter apathy. In industry circles, in fact, there even has been some rejoicing over it. For example, at a trade-association reception in Washington a few weeks before the election, one lobbyist for a major U.S. corporation was heard to comment that he hoped for a low voter turnout in California. That would increase the chances, he explained, of Matt Fong, the GOP challenger, defeating incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal Democrat. Such an outcome, he explained, would regain a key Senate seat for Republicans, thus helping the party win a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority and improve the outlook for business-backed legislation. (It didn't happen: Fong lost, and Republicans failed to pick up ANY additional Senate seats.) It takes no great insight to explain the poor turnout, which would have been even lower had not union members and blacks shown up in surprising numbers to give Democrats a better-than-expected showing. Obviously, though, peace and prosperity has a lot to do with it. With employment high, inflation low, and the nation not engaged in a shooting war, most Americans are content. It's when they're angry that they flock to the polls. Other factors, no doubt, are the public's disgust with the Clinton scandal (reinforcing widespread cynicism that all politicians are liars if not crooks); the pervasive, poll-driven political campaigning; campaign-spending illegalities; and heightened political partisanship. The question is: What to do about it? The political establishment, more concerned with the tactics of campaigns, has given precious little thought to this central issue. The only bright idea to come along in years was the motor-voter law. But even that became embroiled in partisan politics as Republicans, outnumbered by Democrats in voter registration, resisted the concept. And the measure does nothing to inspire registered voters to actually go the polls. More bright ideas are urgently needed. In this computer age, for instance, why couldn't there be some way to devise a secure method of electronic voting -- in the same way that corporate shareholders can now vote their proxies over the Internet? American companies talk grandly of their commitment to corporate citizenship. Here is a splendid opportunity for them to demonstrate that commitment. To be sure, many firms do conduct voter-registration drives among employees, invite candidates to speak to employee meetings during work hours, send out voter guides, communicate on issues to employees and shareholders, and give employees time off to vote and even serve in elective office. But many companies DON'T undertake such activities. Many still regard political action warily. That needs to change. Companies also constantly tout their vaunted capacity to innovate. Here, too, is their chance to prove it. In the last several years, the business community has been in the forefront of generating ideas for improving public-school education. It should put the same kind of creative energy into finding ways to energize political participation. Nothing is of more long-term importance to the health of America's free-enterprise system.

TAGS: Legislation
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