thumbnail of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; 6090; Non Voters
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(Tease -- different polling workers in a phone room, interviewing citizens about their voting preferences)
POLLING WORKER: If the election were held tomorrow, which candidate would you be likely to support -- President Carter, Ronald Reagan, or John Anderson? Ronald Reagan.
POLLING WORKER: -- President Carter, Ronald Reagan, or John Anderson? Presi-dent Carter? Well, that`s great. I hope you continue to support the president.
POLLING WORKER: You wouldn`t vote for President Carter, Ronald Reagan or John Anderson? Okay. Would you have someone else in mind; or would you be voting at all? Okay, sir. Thank you. Bye, bye. [To fellow worker] He said he`s not voting for any of the candidates.
ROBERT MacNEIL [voice-over]: Tonight, why millions of Americans won`t vote for anyone next Tuesday.
MacNEIL: Good evening. As Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan continue to slug away at each other, off in quiet rooms away from the noise and stink of the campaign, politicians are worried about getting Americans out to vote for anyone. In every election since 1960, although a larger number of Americans has voted, the percentage of those eligible doing so has declined. When Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960, 62.8 percent of the electorate cast ballots. When Carter beat Ford in 1976, only 54.4 percent bothered to vote. In this year of rampant disenchantment with the candidates, voter turnout may reach a new low. Tonight, the Americans who will not vote and why. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, people who don`t vote come in all sizes, shapes, accents and stations in life. But the search through the years does establish some profile data of the average non-voter. Mainly, they tend to be younger, less educated and poorer than the general voting population. They also rate themselves as political independents and live more in the south and northeast than in the rest of the country. But as I say. you can walk in to just about any place, anywhere, and find them. Robin, Charlayne Hunter- Gault and I proved that this week. My trip was two nights ago to Peggy`s Truck Stop, which is in Bear, Delaware, on U.S. Highway 40 near Wilmington. Some of the non-voters I talked to were truckdrivers passing through. Others were local people who came for a late night dinner of Peggy`s famous fried chicken.
LEHRER [to truckstop patron]: Robert, why aren`t you going to vote Tuesday?
MAN: Well, I registered to vote, but I`m not going to vote because I just don`t believe in the both of them. There has always been promises, that they never kept, you know. And uh, I feel sorry for the people that are trying to work for a living and they can`t make it. They`re taking care of everybody else but the right people.
LEHRER: What do you say to those who say it`s your patriotic duty to vote.
MAN: That`s the way I was raised, and I should do it, right. But, every time we get somebody in there, it`s the same old promises, and we keep paying -- the taxes are going up -- you know, it`s higher and higher all the time. So, why should you vote? So. no matter who gets in there, it`s going to be the same old thing. You got to get somebody that is honest.
LEHRER [to mother patron]: Why aren`t you going to vote?
2nd MAN: I`m like a lot of other truckers, and most of the American public I guess. I`m disappointed in politics. I`m disappointed in the crooks.
LEHRER: In the what?
2nd MAN: In the crooks in the White House, the proven criminals, the bribe- takers, the people set there for their own reasons, and not for us anymore. And I really don`t see the use in it.
LEHRER: How does not voting solve that problem?
2nd MAN: Well, that`s a good question. I agree with what you`re saying, because I believe it`s every man`s duty to vote. Really. But, I`m really fed up with it. I`m sick of it.
LEHRER: Can you think of anybody else who`s now active in national politics, that if he or she were on the ballot Tuesday, that you would go vote?
2nd MAN: Yeah. No, not now. Not now. If Teddy Roosevelt was running. I`d vote for him. Or Harry Truman, if he was running.
LEHRER: Nobody, though, that was alive today?
2nd MAN: Nope. Nobody that I know of.
LEHRER: Well. David, what`s wrong? What`s wrong with this country?
2nd MAN: We don`t have any heroes anymore.
LEHRER: What does it take to be a hero?
2nd MAN: You got to find somebody honest. Somebody that has the public good in his own thoughts and not in his own pocketbook. And I haven`t seen that lately.
WOMAN: When I went to school, you know, the president was supposed to make everything right. The country was supposed to run smooth, you know. And we just have too many problems, you know.
LEHRER: What do you think our worst problem is, then?
WOMAN: The cost of living. It costs too much to survive.
LEHRER: Is it hurting you really bad?
WOMAN: Really. I can`t find a job. It`s hard. You know. And, you know, I was always told get a high school diploma, and you could get a job. Well, that doesn`t work, `cause I`ve got one. In fact, when they asked for a freeze on prices, why didn`t Jimmy Carter freeze the prices? You know. It might have helped a little bit.
LEHRER: Your vote doesn`t matter at all?
WOMAN: I don`t know. Uh, maybe I learned my history wrong or something, but I was always told the electoral votes is what counts. What if I go in there and vote for Reagan and so does half the people in the country, more than half the people in the country, and the electoral votes go on the other side. You know, where do we stand? We`re not really voting. They are.
MacNEIL: Besides blue collar workers, another voting block whose percentage turnout is low are blacks and other minorities. A recent study by the Roper Organization found that 49 percent of blacks said they will not vote Many of these are found in older inner cities. like New Haven. Connecticut, where Charlayne Hunter-Gault talked with a number of blacks who intend to stay away from the polls on Tuesday.
WOMAN: Why should I vote? I ain`t even registered.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why aren`t you registered``
WOMAN: Why should I vote? Whatever -- whoever I vote for, they ain`t going to work out for me anyway. So why should I vote?
HUNTER-GAULT: Why do you feel that way?
WOMAN: I just feel that way. Because no matter who you vote for. they`re going to do whatever they want anyway. So why should I take my time to go out and change it?
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Rogers, why aren`t you going to vote?
MAN: Right now I don`t see anybody to vote for.
HUNTER-GAULT: What are you looking for?
MAN: Changes. Changes in the welfare roll, unemployment, housing -- in just some of the conditions that exist, you know.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, have you been listening to the candidates and what they`ve had to say about these issues?
MAN: I`ve been listening to a lot of political rhetoric, you know, things that were said around election time, you know. But the thing is, what do they say and what do they do after the elections? Thai`s the thing. That`s the bet.
HUNTER-GAULT: Have you voted in the past?
MAN: Yes, I have.
HUNTER-GAULT: Is this the first time you`ve gotten to a position where you just feel that there`s no choice for you?
MAN: No, this is the first time that I ever realized that I really had a choice, that I had the choice either to vote or not to vote. You know, and I think that it is just as important for a person not to vote as it is to vote.
MAN: Because when you vote for people, you`re voting somebody in office. If you don`t vote, that person doesn`t get in office.
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you feel that your vote is important?
MAN: That`s why I won`t give it away. That`s why I won`t vote for anybody.
2nd WOMAN: Well, I really -- you know, there is nobody that I really like to vote for.
HUNTER-GAULT: Have you ever voted before?
2nd WOMAN: At the time I registered, I was like, in high school, and everything, and at the time it sounded good. But now, you know. I look, and as the years go by, it`s really not what they are claiming it to be. And I just kind of strayed away from it.
2nd MAN: They have it together behind closed doors.
HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, what do they have together?
2nd MAN: Well. I don`t know, it`s politics. You know, you never know what goes on back there. Like, people make the investigations on -- I don`t know what they call it -- the avscan --
2nd MAN: Yeah. That spoke a lot for everybody, you know. So like, why should I vote? You know, the votes add up, you know. But the little votes don`t count, you know. You know, like. I would vote -- I would vote if I figured that, you know, somebody that is decent is going to be in there, that is for real. We don`t even have a leader no more, you know -- the blacks. And, you know, we don`t have nobody to lead us, no more.
LEHRER: Charlayne made a second stop, while in New Haven. It was at the campus of Southern Connecticut State College. She was looking for young people who plan not to vote on Tuesday. And she found them.
COLLEGE STUDENT: Well, I really don`t want to exercise my right to vote . That`s just as much a right as to vote. Because. I don`t feel Reagan is going to do anything. And, it might be a good strategical move to pick Carter. But, I`m not really impressed with him either.
2nd STUDENT: Who are we going to vote for? I mean, look at what -- I feel Carter is an honest man. But he`s almost powerless. Everything he comes up with they vote down, you know. He tries to rescue people in Iran, the plane crashes. I mean, the man`s got -- he`s not -- he`s got Billy, his brother, who is a complete wacko. I mean, you know, this man has got a lot going against him. And look at Reagan. I mean any -- Reagan. The born-again Christians are supporting him, and so is the Ku Klux Klan. What a combination that is?
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you think that television is having an impact on your attitudes about the candidates, or about the process?
3rd STUDENT: I don`t like watching television, because I know, like if you sit down and you watch candidates. Everything is pre-chosen what they`re going to say and they won`t discuss certain issues. Certain issues they refuse to comment on. You know, they`re afraid to say. Because they`re -- you know, either the majority of the people aren`t going to like it. Or whatever the reason be.
HUNTER-GAULT: So, television is reinforcing your negativism, is what you`re saying.
3rd STUDENT: Probably, yeah.
1st STUDENT: The issues are important, but they can say anything they want. I mean, what Carter said when he first started running for president -- he said a lot of good. How many of it has he done? How much of it?
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, if fewer and fewer people vote, and you finally get down to just a very small number of people voting and making the decisions about who runs the country, do you not think that is no longer what our country is supposed to be?
1st STUDENT: Don`t you think that`s the way it is now, though?
1st STUDENT: A small nucleus of people making decisions, and it just looks like a large number of people. It`s not really a true democracy in that sense.
2nd STUDENT: The days are gone when an honest young man off a farm can rise to become president. Unless he, you know, inherits a million dollars or something. To become a politician -- you look at every single politician, they are loaded to the gills. I mean, they`re spending, like. $3 million on a campaign. How many average citizens can do that?
HUNTER-GAULT: What would it take to make you enthusiastic about the process?
1st STUDENT: I think we`re going to have to get some kind of presidential hero. Have somebody do something to stir everybody up, you know. So we have someone to pull for. Someone to look up to. But I really don`t see that happening.
HUNTER-GAULT: So, in other words, you are saying, if there were a charismatic, strong, honorable, presidential person -- someone who could electrify the electorate -- that would make you interested in voting?
1st STUDENT: No, not necessarily. It would have to be someone that could -- that would do something.
MacNEIL: Normally, according to voter surveys, participation increases in the middle class, with income of about $15,000 as the turning point. This week I talked to many such people in a shopping center at Carmel, New York, north of New York City. While the great majority fully intend to vote, there were plenty who said they wouldn`t.
MacNEIL: Why have you decided not to vote for president?
WOMAN: Well, I don`t think any of the candidates are worthwhile voting for. I don`t think they will take an honest view of this country and help us out of our inflation. And many other things.
MacNEIL: Did you vote last time?
MacNEIL: Is this the first time you haven`t voted?
WOMAN: Right, yes.
MacNEIL: What do you achieve by not voting?
WOMAN: Well, I think our vote -- my vote, counts a lot, and I don`t want to waste it. And I feel like I`m wasting it on these candidates.
MacNEIL: Do you feel, as a citizen, do you feel in any way sort of guilty, that you are not going to go and vote?
MacNEIL: You don`t.
MacNEIL [to a second woman]: Why aren`t you going to vote for president?
2nd WOMAN: Because, there is really nothing to vote for. Very honestly.
MacNEIL: What is that?
2nd WOMAN: When someone gets in that is worthwhile voting for. then I`ll vote.
MacNEIL: Well, how will you know when that person comes along, who`s worth voting for?
2nd WOMAN: Well, obviously, the people that have been there have not been doing much. I mean, I`ve had a lot of experience, like the business with welfare, and, you know, all of them. You don`t get anything from welfare. Senior citizens get absolutely nothing. And I can say it because I`ve been in welfare office for four or five hours at a time and I see what they do. I mean. CETA programs for kids -- for adults, rather. Everything. I mean, the whole -- it`s ridiculous. As far as I`m concerned, they`re both nothing to vote for.
MacNEIL [to man in store]: Why have you decided not to vote for president?
MAN: I think at this point for the first time in 28 years, I have decided not to, simply because it`s a protest. I don`t feel comfortable with both candidates, and. being a Democrat for my entire life, at this point, I`m protesting.
MacNEIL: But one of these men is going to end up as president. Doesn`t it matter to you which one?
MAN: Of course it does. I don`t think it`s a thrown away move on my part not to vote. I just have that strong conviction now. and this is what I intend to do. I`m lost here in the country if I don`t stand up and say I don`t want either man.
MacNEIL: But you`re going to be living for the next four years under one or other of them as president.
MAN: You`re correct. And I can`t control it. I just feel that this is my protest.
MacNEIL: But what, exactly, are you protesting against?
MAN: The high inflation. A personal a front on my life, let`s say. by my wife and myself having to work. We both have to kill ourselves to just keep up with the economic picture that we have today. And, I don`t see Mr. Reagan solving any of this. So I would like to see a grass roots man be elected. Somebody from the farm. Or someone come along and just get elected.
MacNEIL: Is it disturbing you to do that?
MAN: Of course it is. It`s the first time I`ve done this in 28 years. I haven`t voted. I`m 47 now and I voted in every election, local and national. This is the first time that I haven`t.
LEHRER: There was a bipartisan non-profit research group set up four years ago to explore the causes of and cures for non-voting among Americans. It`s called the Com-mittee for the Study of the American Electorate, and its director is Curtis Gans. `I`m protesting,` the man said. Is not voting a legitimate form of protest, in your opinion?
CURTIS GANS: I wouldn`t say it`s legitimate. I think people who are doing that increasingly believe it is a rational act. that -- -
LEHRER: Why isn`t it a rational act?
GANS: I think there could be and should be more active ways of protesting. There`s a variety of candidates now available in minor parties, in which people could cast their ballot and say `a pox on both your houses` in an affirmative way. The only way that not voting becomes a rational act, in this context, is the degree to which people now are becoming aware, that there is a large body of Americans who are unhappy. And maybe, in the next four years, we`ll begin to do something about that.
LEHRER: What is the basic harm of people not voting?
GANS: Well, there is several. I think our society, in general, performs best when we have the active interest of the citizens of the citizenry. I think --
LEHRER: You mean, they feel part of that, just through the fact that they voted, you mean?
GANS: Well, not only that. Voting is a first stage involvement. And we found when we took a survey in 1976 that non-voters didn`t participate in anything. Whereas voters may participate in lots of other things. And. to the extent that our society functions best with a healthy degree of voluntarism and commitment to citizen participation, voting is an im- portant first step. I think secondly, the more you get rid of -- the more the voter partici-pation goes down, the more the general interest voter ceases to participate, [then] the more you become prey to those people who are intensely active, whether they`re for or against gun control, or for and against abortion. Or the peripheral issues that are intensely felt by a small group of people help determine our nominees and our elections, when the general interest voter sees nothing in the election for them to vote for. Similarly, in the course of public policy -- if you have, let us say, public employees. They consist of -- they comprise one sixth of the electorate --
LEHRER: And. they`re very likely to vote.
GANS: They vote very heavily. Between 80 and 90 percent. When you have an electorate that`s 50 percent in presidential elections, or nearly a third in congressional elections, that 80 to 90 percent becomes a third or a half. And if you want to affect changes in civil service reform, or want to change the composition of the public employee or change the departments of government, that set of public policies could very well be blocked by a diminishing electorate. And finally, the scary thing about the films that we saw, are everybody is looking for a man on a white horse. And it indicates that people are less attentive and less sophisticated about politics, this declining participation. To the extent that that`s the case, they may find a man on a white horse, who, after being elected, may not turn out to be a man on a white horse, but just simply a demagogue, or even somebody who`s more dictatorial than they might be. My friend. Peter Hard, who took our survey, suggested that those people who are looking for a man on a white horse -- that phenome-non that 87 percent of our survey suggested that they wanted -- they would be called the Musollini factor. In other words, they are looking for somebody to take their cares away from them. And, I don`t think that`s healthy either.
LEHRER: All right. Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Now the views of a man who has spent much of this campaign period talking to non-voting Americans. He is John Judis, Political Editor of In These Times, a weekly newspaper published in Chicago, and a contributing editor of the Progressive magazine. Mr. Judis. how do you explain all this resistance to voting?
JOHN JUDIS: Well. I think that there`s two ways you can look at it. The one most important thing that makes the United States different from countries like Italy, Germany. France, where the turnout is between 85 and 95 percent, is that the United States doesn`t have the kind of labor/social democratic/socialist party that those countries have. That`s the kind of party which is designed to directly represent just those voters who are now leaving the electorate -- the poor, the blue collar worker, the minority.
MacNEIL: It wouldn`t make any difference to the middle class voters, though, who are alienated this year.
JUDIS: A lot of middle class voters are soon becoming what they would describe as poor. I think that it`s an issue that would cut right across working class and middle class. But I think that it`s especially telling in terms of the poor, the minority and the blue collar worker. I think that they are the hole in the electorate. They are the people who are missing from participation in the United States, where they do participate in other countries.
MacNEIL: What would you say to the conservative argument that the reason so many people are disillusioned is because after so many years of liberal government and liberal solutions -- which have promised a great deal but delivered less than they`ve promised -- that is the cause of the great disillusionment.
JUDIS: I actually agree with that argument. I think it`s correct, but I think what you have to do is look at what liberalism is. For the last 35 years the United States has been governed by a philosophy based on two conditions -- the absolute economic and the absolute military superiority of the United States around the world. This permitted politicians -- and here we talk about liberals. Republicans and conservatives -- to promise continued prosperity with very limited government intervention. And also to promise that other countries around the world would defer to the United States. That`s no longer true. The United States is no longer absolutely superior, either economically or militarily. What we have now is we have a crisis where politics and policy go in different directions. Where, in terms of policy, politicians are totally paralyzed, but where in terms of politics, they`re promising the old things as if the world were exactly the way it was 20 or 30 years ago.
MacNEIL: Is this election this year different from the previous ones in degree or kind of the disenchantment, do you think?
JUDIS: Well, let`s take it in terms of this difference between policy and politics. In 1976, Jimmy Carter`s main complaint against Gerald Ford was that he had used a recession to fight inflation. 1980 -- what do we find -- exactly the same thing. Ronald Reagan is saying that Jimmy Carter used a recession to fight inflation. What this reflects is the same thing that these voters experienced -- that it doesn`t matter who gets in. Republican or Democrat, it`s going to be the same problems. And I expect that in 1984, if Ronald Reagan were to be elected, there might very well be a Democrat who made the same complaint. In other words, we`ve reached a point of stalemate.
MacNEIL: But there have been attempts in this country to establish, for instance, the Socialist Workers Party or Barry Commoner`s effort in this election to establish a new kind of populism. Why do those not catch on if your thesis is true?
JUDIS: I think that we are right at the beginning of a period. One of the main reasons there hasn`t been an active left in the United States for the last 50 years, is that the United States, except for the ten years of the depression, and was able to enjoy a relatively high standard of living, was able to enjoy economic growth, was able to enjoy a certain amount of bravado and optimism in terms of its role in the world. I think that we`ve now reached a point of crisis where people have to start reconsidering politics and policy. These parties at the moment are minor efforts. I think that what has to happen is that the major forces within the Democratic Party, who feel so frustrated this year -- the labor unions, the citizens groups, the minority organizations, the women`s organizations -- that they have to see that it`s their imperative to build a new kind of political movement within the Democratic Party, outside the Democratic Party.
MacNEIL: I see. Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Gans, do you see a solution to the nonvoter problem short of forming a new left party?
GANS: Well, I don`t think that anew left party is going to be likely right now. But I think, party realignment, in general, is a more significant problem.
LEHRER: Along left and right philosophical lines?
GANS: No, it`s just that right now the Republican Party has become so narrow on the presidential level and so confirmedly right wing that it doesn`t put forward leaders who are speaking to our problems now. And the Democratic Party has become so broad and amorphous that it can`t deliver on its programs. So that in some senses, there is going to have to be a constructive realignment of the parties either through leadership or through the breaking off of forces in order to make it work. That is not the only answer. I mean, there are others.
LEHRER: You realize that what both of you gentlemen are saying goes against the other argument, which is that one of the strengths of our political system is that both parties are forced by the electorate to go toward a consensus in the middle.
GANS: I`m not saying that we should have broadly ideological parties. I am suggesting, however, that the type of non-debate that we have now -- the debate that`s gone on in this campaign - -- is not particularly constructive of that. You have the situation that existed, for instance, in Bethesda High School, when Bethesda High School -- after they watched the debate, they took a poll. And more students decided that they wouldn`t vote if they had the vote, than they had had before the debate. And that is, I think, a realistic looking at what the candidates were saying. For you and I, we will make a sophisticated choice. We will choose one or another of the candidates, because we believe there is going to be a difference. I am not arguing for a liberal or a conservative party, but I am essentially saying that the way that the debate is now being framed is not a debate that the American public is responding to. They are responding honestly, the ones that you had on this program, saying, `I don`t feel that the choice is going to make a difference.`
LEHRER: Mr. Judis, finally, what`s your feel for what the turnout is actually going to be this time on Tuesday? Is it going to be less than the 54 percent of four years ago?
JUDIS: Well, I think that the crucial indicators have been the amount of undecided voters. The undecided voters in key eastern states, and in some of the southern states as well, has been as high as 25 percent in October. Usually, about half of those turn out to be non-voters. In 1976. the undecided voters were between 5 and 10 percent at the same time. So, I think that that factor would indicate that we might have a result below the 54 percent we had in 1976.
LEHRER: What`s your reading of that, Mr. Gans?
GANS: Well, the only hard data we have right now is that in the 17 states that are reporting registration figures right now, eight of them have lower registration than in 1976. My judgment is that it will be down at least 2 percent.
LEHRER: The only other thing I have seen on that was the Roper poll showed that it might be up as high as 56 percent. It might even be higher.
GANS: Well, Gallup suggested that it was going to be down 2. I side with Gallup.
LEHRER: All right. Robin?
MacNEIL: Thank you both very much gentlemen, for joining us this evening. Good night Jim.
LEHRER: Good night. Robin.
MacNEIL: That is all for tonight. We will be back with you on Monday night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
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Non Voters
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This episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report covers the decline of American voters. Politicians are worried about the rising number of people who are registered to vote, but choose not to. Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer and Charlayne Hunter-Gault take a closer look at these non-voters through personal interviews and discussions with political analysts.
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