A rumor has been coursing through the Internet and black talk-radio shows: Congress will disenfranchise black Americans when it reconsiders the 1965 Voting Rights Act—which it must do by no later than 2007. The Congressional Black Caucus has fielded hundreds of anxious phone calls over the past two years; the Justice Department now posts a Web site rebuttal.
It's a lead-pipe cinch that this year's election reform panels, hearings, briefs, and reports will feature many attempts to summarize neatly the American experience with voting rights. Most of these sketches are likely to be wrong. If you read The Right to Vote, you will know why.
Robert Putnam's analysis of the decline of civic
engagement suggests that Americans have become a nation of couch-potatoes,
turning to television for solitary entertainment, leaving bowling leagues, PTA
meetings, and the Rotary Club behind. If true, this shift to homebody-ness
entails a vast cost to public spirit. A long line of democratic theory
stretching from Thucydides to Tocqueville suggests that a dynamic and diverse
polity requires civic engagement, else threats to liberty and prosperity emerge.
Electoral participation is vital to political democracy. Yet in the past quarter century our rate of voting participation has dropped sharply and shows no signs of rebounding. In 1988 just 50.2 percent of voting-age adults voted for President, down from 62.8 percent in 1960. Voting for lesser offices, chronically lower than presidential voting, has fallen dramatically as well. In 1986 only 33.4 percent of the voting-age population participated in House elections. The last time half the eligible population cast ballots in House elections in a presidential year was 1972.