Washington For a quarter-century the American political system has been capital-intensive. It may be on the verge of becoming labor-intensive.
With the legislation to overhaul the campaign-finance system heading for a Senate vote, most of the attention has been on what politicians and contributors can't do under the bill. Businesses, unions and individuals can't give unregulated soft money to national political parties. Candidates can't accept donations from foreign sources. Groups can't run issue ads 60 days before an election or 30 days before a primary.
But perhaps the most important part of the legislation is the one that's getting the least attention. If the Senate passes the bill and President Bush signs it, the new emphasis in American political life may be on what the parties and the interest groups can do. As a result, the new pressure point in politics may no longer be the media offensive. It may instead be the get-out-the-vote effort.
Nothing could be more significant a change in the way Americans conduct elections and in the way Americans regard elections. In the 2000 presidential election, the closest in modern American history, only 51.2 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot. A generation earlier, in the close presidential race between Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard M. Nixon of California, the official voting rate was 62.8 percent but because blacks were eligible to vote but in many cases were disenfranchised, the rate among plausible potential voters nationally was probably even higher.
There is good reason to believe that voting rates may climb in the next election. Americans saw on Sept. 11 and in the months that followed a vivid demonstration of the importance of political affairs. In 1968, when 60.8 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot, Nixon ran with a slogan that urged Americans to "vote as if your whole world depended on it." In 2004, no candidate will have to make that argument.
By that time, if the Shays-Meehan campaign-finance bill becomes law, state parties and special interest groups will almost certainly be redirecting their efforts into get-out-the-vote campaigns. By banning both national and state parties from using soft money to finance ads, the campaign-finance legislation frees up funds for voter mobilization efforts. "The money may go to these activities because they can't be used anymore for what they used to be used for," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which is working to overhaul the campaign-finance system.
Don't expect a civics-class effort to persuade people to vote because, like spinach, it's good for them. The parties and special interests will try to persuade only their allies to troop to the polls. As a result, Democrats will almost certainly try to motivate unmarried women, a group that has strong Democratic leanings but not a strong voting record. Republicans will try to re-energize religious conservatives. "One of the challenges we saw in the last election was the drop-off of evangelical voters," said former GOP Rep. Randy Tate of Washington, a former president of the Christian Coalition.
The parties have already developed sophisticated voter-targeting technologies. "You can figure out what kind of people are less likely to vote and then you can figure out how to motivate them so they do vote," said Charles A. Baker, a Boston lawyer prominent in Democratic voter efforts. "A lot of people who don't vote don't know where their polling place is. You can improve things a lot by going from calling people up and telling them to vote to calling them up and telling them where to vote."
But the parties won't be alone. The labor movement has the strongest get-out-the-vote effort, with an extensive network of volunteers dropping leaflets, cornering colleagues in workplaces, using phone banks to mobilize labor members and their families to go to the polls. "This has become the anchor of what we do," said Steven S. Rosenthal, the political director of the AFL-CIO. "We're putting more and more resources into registering and getting out union voters. We'll do more."
Business groups already have started. The Chamber of Commerce of the United States put less than $25,000 into House and Senate races in 1998. The group invested $15 million in such efforts in 2000. The campaign-finance legislation "will drive the business community into doing more of this," said William C. Miller, political director at the chamber.
All this may boost voter turnout, but it can't be counted on to cure voter ennui. "Any personal contact in politics is a good thing," said Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "Is it going to fight everything that has caused the decline in voter participation in the last several decades? Probably not."
Even so, the tools of American politics may be about to change. When they do, the behavior of American voters may change, too.
David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.