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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/30/16

Disruption to Fix American Democracy

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Follow my analysis of multiyear presidential election data and you will learn several remarkable things with implications for this year's election. First, though the term voter turnout is often used, there are two significantly different variations. Sometimes it refers to the fraction of voter age or eligible population that votes. Other times, the more useful and correct version is the fraction of registered voters. The national number of registered voters is always considerably less that the national voter age population, and obstacles to registration vary greatly among states.

It is also revealing to look at how the ratio of registered voters to voter age population has changed over time. Why? Because Americans have to take action to become registered to vote and, therefore, it suggests a civic or patriotic commitment to participate in American democracy. In 2012, about 80 percent of the voter age population was registered, an impressive level. Back in 1964 it was 65 percent. Indeed, a major change happened in 2008, when the typical, longer term 65 percent figure jumped to 82 percent and stayed high in 2012. Clearly, a national effort to increase registration changed the historic pattern for the positive.

But an intriguing question is this: Does a greater number and fraction of registered voters translate to higher voter turnout? You might think so, because they have turned eligibility into likelihood. But the simple answer is no. A closer look is instructive.

Going back to 1964, registered voter turnout (in the Johnson versus Goldwater race) was very high at just under 96 percent. The ten-election average from 1968 to 2004, however, was just over 87 percent, with not much variation. Then something major changed. In 2008 it was just over 70 percent and in 2012 it was about 67 percent. Both levels are a major phenomenon because in those two years the ratio of registered to total voter age population was historically high at 80 percent or more. Disturbingly, registration does not equal voting, despite the social media revolution and micro-targeting campaign methods. Registered people not voting are much more significant than eligible citizens not voting. The former are likely more informed, but also more angry and dissatisfied than the latter.

Note that if historical voter age population turnout data are examined instead of registration turnout there is no drop-off phenomenon. The corresponding ten-election average is 57 percent with little variation, and was similar in 2008 and 2012.

In sum, when more Americans were registered to vote, a much smaller fraction actually voted for president in the two elections that President Obama won. How significant was this? If the prior ten-year historic trend turnout would have prevailed, then in 2008 another 32 million people would have voted, and in 2012 another 39 million would have. These figures show that very large numbers of those aligned with the Democratic and Republican candidates, or turned off by both, decided not to vote, despite being registered. Many may have also been impacted by the national economic recession in that period causing dissatisfaction with most political and economic institutions. Likewise, millions were burned by economic inequality.

Consider our history with disrupter presidential candidates. Three elections stand out because third party candidates usually received around one percent unlike these. In 1992 the outsider Ross Perot obtained nearly 20 percent of the national vote, but Bill Clinton beat George Bush. Significantly, there was an uptick in the voter turnout to 90 percent, compared to 86 percent in the prior election (when George Bush beat Michael Dukakis in a landslide).

But the following two elections showed less potential and public perception for disrupter success. In 1996 Perot was again on the ballot but received only eight percent of the national vote and voter turnout dropped to 82 percent when Bill Clinton easily beat Bob Dole. Then, in 2000, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan became disrupter candidates but received just over three percent of the total vote, and the turnout was 86 percent (and George W. Bush won over Al Gore with more electoral but fewer popular votes).

In all three of these elections, however, all the losing disrupter candidates were third party candidates. The big lesson is that a disrupter presidential candidate has to be a major party candidate to stand a chance of winning in a nation with a duopoly political system, despite the difficulty of accomplishing this. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and also Michael Bloomberg and the American public seem to have learned this lesson.

With no disrupter candidate success in three prior elections, by 2008 a large fraction of the population had turned negative about the whole two-party political system as also shown by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. This populist unrest has exploded, culminating with the current anti-establishment, anti-status quo sentiment supporting both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

One scenario for this year is that one of the two major party disrupter candidates gets to the final ballot producing high voter turnout, most likely Trump. Both succeeding is quite unlikely. If either Trump was on the general 2016 election ballot, it is reasonable to believe that a high turnout would occur for him, versus a relatively low turnout for the establishment candidate, most likely Hillary Clinton. Certainly, the high turnout in many Trump primaries suggests this. Nevertheless, Clinton could still win, especially if Sanders supporters voted for Clinton rather than Trump out of spite, lesser-evil thinking or conviction. Trump must target eligible, angry citizens and get them voting, or registered for the first time.

The second scenario is that both disruptive candidates fail to get on the final ballot because powerful status quo prevails. Voter turnout may again be 70 percent or less, because of so much public anger and dissatisfaction with the political establishment. In other words, it is possible that over 30 million registered voters would boycott the 2016 presidential election, despite an even larger number of registered voters compared to 2012 because of the heated primary races for this cycle. This would greatly impact how campaigns chose to advance their cause. Establishment candidates would try to sell reforms, but voters could reject an obvious dishonest campaign tactic.

Such low turnout is less than a number of advanced democracies, reducing the legitimacy of American representative and participatory democracy and its image as the exceptional world democracy. Something that only candidate Sanders has commented on. A voter boycott by disappointed disrupter candidate supporters in 2016 because their favored disrupter was not on the ballot could be seen as a tactic to intentionally reduce the legitimacy of and embarrass American democracy in order to better motivate serious reforms by establishment candidates. This is a true disrupter strategy.

With no disrupter on the final ballot, which would be a shock to many Americans, we would have had three presidential elections in a row with very low registered voter turnout. Finally, the public, and hopefully the media, might conclude that America's delusional democracy has definitely been replaced by a plutocracy. Paradoxically, rejection of voting may be a way to make America great again by pushing the establishment president from either major party to become a serious reformer. Perhaps major party convention delegates should think about this and see the benefit of having a disrupter candidate rather than pursue a slugfest between two establishment candidates as the world sees American democracy crumbling.

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Joel S. Hirschhorn is the author of Pandemic Blunder: Fauci and Public Health Blocked Early Home COVID Treatment, Delusional Democracy - Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government and several other books, as well as hundreds of (more...)

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