University of Rochester

Political Scientists Say They Can Reverse Trends of Citizen Despair

September 1, 2005

Leading U.S. political scientists, including Richard G. Niemi of the University of Rochester, believe Americans who are disengaged from politics can be reached by practical remedies that improve the political system. Taking a citizen's perspective, the political scientists roll out ways to reverse trends of dissatisfaction with government in a new book, Democracy at Risk.

"For instance, we suggest that there ought to be alternative ways to create legislative districts rather than have state legislatures do it," says Niemi, the Don Alonzo Watson Professor of Political Science. "The whole process has been done in a way that leads to very little competition between the political parties, and that, in turn, has negative consequences." For example, a commission could change the drawing of district lines, which is under consideration in California.

The collaboration that has resulted in Democracy at Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation and What We Can Do about It (Brookings Institution Press) is an unusual one. Niemi points out that political scientists "often take a hands-off approach" when it comes to agendas for reforming political systems. Niemi contributed to the book's chapter on electoral politics.

Another change that can increase people's participation in elections is restoring the right to vote for felons who have served their time and completed probation, says Niemi. "That seems to me to be an obvious, correct thing to do. Still, some states make it very difficult for felons to ever vote again. It's one of a number of things that collectively could make a big difference."

For this project, 19 political scientists contributed with the work overseen by Stephen Macedo, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics at Princeton University. Democracy at Risk will be discussed this week in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, whose Committee on Civic Education and Engagement sponsored the book.

"Political science casts light on our problems and potential solutions," conclude the authors. "Careful attention to the design of institutions can produce more inclusive and better informed citizen participation and more responsive and effective government."