The US Presidential Elections: Silencing the poor of America: By the weekend 90 million adults will be disenfranchised, writes John Lichfield from Washington

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BY THE end of this week, nearly 40 per cent of the American electorate will have lost the right to vote in the presidential election in November. Registration ends in most states tomorrow and an estimated 90 million Americans will have failed to register in time.

When one of the most absorbing campaigns in the country's history ends five weeks tomorrow, scarcely more than one in two adults will vote. Turnout is expected to be marginally higher than the 50.1 per cent in 1988 but still the worst in the democratic world, apart from Switzerland.

US politics is arguably defined by these immense legions, voting with their bottoms rather than their feet. They are carefully screened from the polls showing Governor Bill Clinton 10 to 21 points ahead of President Bush. But if the race tightens, they might yet shape the outcome.

To occupy the world's most powerful elected office, Bill Clinton or George Bush must reach, persuade and hold on to not 50 per cent of the American electorate, but 25 per cent. To win several key Southern states - where 20 per cent of voters are black and solidly Democratic - Bill Clinton must capture the hearts and minds of two in 10 white adults.

Since the non-vote is heavily concentrated among the young, poor and less educated, the US electorate is sharply skewed towards the elderly and middle aged, the better-educated and well-off. The top 33 per cent of Americans, by wealth, cast 44 per cent of the votes. Small wonder that taxation is such a terrifying issue for the politicians and the one issue that most scares Democratic strategists.

But why do so few Americans vote? (The turnout is 86 per cent in France, 76 per cent in Britain and 69 per cent in Canada.)

The historically low patterns of US voting this century are, in part, a massive act of gerrymandering by both parties. From the turn of the century, a bramble of regulations were introduced - registration, poll taxes, literacy tests - to discourage blacks and poor whites from voting in the South (at Democratic instigation) and to shoo naturalised immigrants away from the polling booths in the North (with Repubican connivance).

Systematic restriction of the electorate to the white and well-to-do for most of this century helps to explain why mainstream American politics - despite all the ideological ballyhoo - occupies such a narrow, centre-right band of the political spectrum. Both parties took pains to ensure that the points of view of the poor, unwashed and uneducated could safely be ignored.

The poll taxes and literacy tests were gradually swept away in the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. But the registration system remains to this day, in most states, a final trip-wire for the politically less-than-aware. It cannot alone explain low turnout. As barriers to voting were dismantled over the last 30 years, the turnout increased at first in the South but fell in the North. Nationwide, turnout peaked in 1960-1968 and has been falling steadily for 20 years. Many factors are blamed: low educational standards, disgust with negative campaigning, the gridlock in Washington, the lack of choice between the parties.

All play their part. One fact, however, stands out. Americans have to make two decisions to vote: once to place themselves on the voting register; once to cast their ballot. A voter failing to register before a deadline cannot vote. Rules vary from state to state, even county to county. In some places it is relatively simple (postal applications are allowed; political parties are assisted in registration drives) while in other places, such as South Carolina and Wyoming, voters must apply in person to a county's registrar, who might easily be 50 miles away.

Richard Cloward, a campaigner for easier ballot access and co-author of Why Americans Don't Vote, said: 'Despite all the braying and the bullshit about this being a citadel of democracy, the universal right to vote is a struggle which is still being fought out here.'

An attempt by Democrats to simplify the rules for future elections - making registration automatic when you apply for a driving licence or welfare - failed last week. The so-called 'motor voter' bill was originally vetoed by President Bush two months ago. The Senate failed by eight votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override the President.

The White House and Senate Republicans said the measure would increase voter fraud. They offered no evidence of how this might be so. More likely, they were acting from rational, if cynical, self-interest. Although some younger Republicans disagree, most Republicans cling to the reasonable view that a wider and poorer electorate would, in the long run, help the Democrats.

It is trickier to understand why Democrats, who would appear to have so much to gain, should come so slowly to 'motor voter' or similar laws. There are two answers: the US primary system and Democratic control over Congressional and state politics.

Incumbent Democrats, already doing well at state and congressional level, have something to gain but much to lose in expanding the electorate. More and poorer voters might help Democrats beat Republicans in the elections; but they might also help other, more radical, Democrats oust them in primaries.

The party's 12-year exile from the White House has helped to change that kind of thinking and brought Democrats - reluctantly in many cases - to support a 'motor voter' law. If Bill Clinton is elected President, and Congress, as expected, remains Democratic, such a law seems certain to be passed in the next four years. If, as its supporters claim, it could increase US turnout in presidential elections from 50 to 65 per cent, it might help Democrats stay in the White House for a while. More likely, over a prolonged period, it would expand the ideological range of US politics, pulling Democrats to the left, and, conceivably, Republicans further to the right.

(Photograph omitted)