Looking for ways to fire up US voters

Year after year the same complaints are heard: Fewer voters are going to the polls in the United States; interest in elections is declining; pressure groups are gaining too much influence.

Political experts, however, say the decline may be nearly over. And they offer a number of steps that Congress and the states might take to swell the number of voters. The experts point to these facts:

* When people register, they usually vote. In the 1980 elections, 87 percent of all registered voters turned out, including 83 percent of registered minority voters.

* In 1960, when Congress suspended the equal-time rule to permit televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, 64 percent of all voting-age Americans went to the polls - the highest percentage since 1908.

* In 1980, voter excitement in the three-way Reagan-Carter-Anderson race seemed high. But when TV networks projected Reagan an easy winner on election night - even before polls had closed in the West - some political experts say it discouraged thousands of people from voting in California and other Pacific states.

At a weekend symposium here, scholars from across the country said that these factors hint at steps that might be taken to boost US voter turnout. The meeting was sponsored by Harvard University and the American Broadcasting Company.

Of highest priority, symposium participants concluded, is voter registration. When people register, they almost always vote. That seems to be true whether the voter is black or white, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Northerner or Southerner, Republican or Democrat.

How can registration be encouraged?

The symposium, which was attended by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford and a number of other notables, didn't come to any firm conclusions. But several possibilities were discussed. These included registration by mail (already permitted in 20 states and the District of Columbia); registration on election day (now permitted in Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin); registration within three days of the election (13 states permit this); and automatic, universal registration (now permitted only in Idaho).

Tough registration rules arose in the US in the 19th century. In some cases, the aim was honorable: to combat fraud. In other cases, the motives were less upright: to keep blacks and others from voting. The greatest concern today about loosening the rules is that fraud could creep into the election process.

Once they have registered, voters need to get excited about the election - and that is where the news media come in.

At present, television networks operate under strict rules set down by Congress. These rules prohibit the broadcast of debates organized by the networks between the top candidates, unless every minor candidate is included.

The rule was suspended once - in 1960. And the result was dramatic. Many people feel that the Kennedy-Nixon debates not only brought about a record modern-day voter turnout, but also probably helped John Kennedy score an upset victory over Vice-President Nixon.

There have been, of course, other presidential debates since 1960: the Ford-Carter debates in 1976, and the Carter-Reagan debates in 1980. These took place under a change in the rules that allows the networks to broadcast debates that are arranged by other organizations, such as the League of Women Voters.

However, ABC, NBC, and CBS all argue that leaving debate arrangements up to others makes the debates harder to arrange and reduces their impact.

Finally, there is the question of the effect of voter projections on turnout.

As early as 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on election day in 1980, at least one network news report indicated that the election looked like a Reagan sweep.

It was true, of course. And the early projections appear to have had no significant effect on the final overall vote for the presidential race.

But the projections are believed to have reduced the vote on the West Coast - cutting it enough in some cases to have a great impact on races for Congress, governorships, state legislatures, local councils, and various referendums.

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