The Few Voters Who Set the Course

I used to be a field organizer for political candidates, recruiting, training, and deploying volunteers. My favorite way to fire up volunteers was to have the candidate tell a war story about how just a few votes changed history.

I thought this phenomenon was great. I'm less sure this year, as I watch the nation's political commentators attach such enormous importance to so few voters, and watch officeholders dutifully follow.

Consider the math. Less than 40 percent of eligible voters, approximately 75 million Americans, went to the polls Tuesday - on of the lowest ever for a nonpresidential year. But not everyone's vote has the same impact in Washington. In the House of Representatives only 30 races were genuinely competitive. In these races, candidates focused most of their energies not on all of the approximately 6 million voters in these districts, but on the 15 percent whose minds could change in the final weeks before election day, but who might otherwise not vote. Thus, only 900,000 voters determined the House election.

Now look at the stakes involved. The all-news channels, weekly magazines, and other outlets had defined the election as a referendum on the presidential impeachment question. Forget a reasoned budget process, saving Social Security, or campaign finance reform. An unofficial, yet binding, plebiscite of 0.346 percent of all 260 million Americans set the nation's direction for the next two years Tuesday.

That so few voters can have such a significant impact on public policy isn't troubling per se. Kennedy's defeat of Nixon and Truman's defeat of Dewey were each caused by razor-thin vote margins and both elections are rightfully thought of as great moments in our democracy.

The 1998 election, however, is different from the 1960 and 1948 elections in two respects: Voter turnout is lower and we now have a full-time chattering class. This means democracy's voice is coming from a smaller percentage of Americans, and this voice is then being reduced to its simplest level by political pundits and amplified instantly and incessantly around the world.

I'm different too. Instead of organizing campaigns, now I'm a public interest lawyer working on democracy issues such as campaign finance reform. I don't look at the power a small group of voters can have and imagine that great organizing opportunities are available. Now, I study the political pundits as they assign meaning to these voters' actions, and I devise angles on how I or my colleagues can join the fray. My perspective as an organizer was more inspiring.

* Kenneth N. Weine is communications director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

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