Joe the Bookie and the Class Voting Gap

By Published on .

It's always tempting to blame Bill Clinton. As a professor, I blamed him for declining enrollments in my political science classes this fall. As an activist, I blamed him for low voter turnout predicted for this November's congressional elections. As a son, I blamed him for every conversation I'd had with Mom and Dad for six straight years about how wonderful they thought the "Not-Clintons" of before "the Fall" were: George and Barbara, Ron and Nancy, even Jimmy and Rosalyn. As a political junkie, when I didn't care who won the September New York primaries I thought: CLINTON! The President had become my Newman. I needed to get a grip.

Fortunately, having been trained as a political scientist to be an objective observer of human behavior, my mind naturally turned to Las Vegas, Brooklyn bookies, and the odds. The republic is in trouble, granted, but what are the odds it's all Bill's fault? Every Geraldo has his answer, but my training and temperament demand exactitude. So I decided not to blame the President for everything-well, not just yet, anyway. I eliminated low enrollments in my classes, my generation gap with my parents, and my own middle-age apathy. Voters staying home, now that might just be all Bill's fault. So I decided to find out the odds of people voting this Nov-ember compared to before "the Fall." I knew they would be much worse: Clinton and all those scandals, right?

Not according to Joe the Bookie. Unlike Sam Donaldson and George Will-the patron saints of opinion parity-Joe's the only pundit I actually haven't seen on TV. I trust him. So I dropped by his house-let's just say it's in Deep Brooklyn, near the New York neighborhood where I was born and raised.

"You're a tenured professor now, right, doctor?" Joe said, ushering me into his living room. That's his way of preparing me for a good talking to. "Don't you have no historical imagination?"

While I searched through my resume for an answer, Joe tuned his TV to the Clinton grand jury testimony, and said, "Watch this." When it was over, Joe sat deep in thought, looking like a sphinx on a plastic-covered couch (only 80-year-old Brooklyn men can actually do this).

"Well?" I asked.

"Interesting," he said dismissively. Nothing more? I really wanted to know what he thought of it all, but I knew better than to change the subject back to one Joe had just changed. "Let's talk about the odds," he said.

"The odds against the average Dick or Jane voting in the congressional elections are almost 2-to-1 against. How do I know?" (Joe thinks asking himself questions is Socratic.) "Simple. I figure the Bill factor will make it a little worse than last time-you remember, 1994. The second American revolution. Thirty-nine percent voted and the winners kicked the losers out of power with a little more than half of that. That's 20 percent, doctor. A vanguard revolution by the Republican Party!"

When Joe stopped laughing, he looked me in the eye. "How much do you make?" he asked. Now Joe knows very well I hate that question. No professor with rich lawyers or bookies for friends likes it.

"Okay, forget it," he said. "To be precise about the odds, I gotta know who you are. If you're poor, or didn't get much schooling, the odds against you votinggo up to almost 3 to 1. That means if I bet against you voting this year, you'll make me put up a movie ticket to win a lousy subway token." He was exaggerating about the ticket, I later figured, but not the odds.

"What if I'm making out well?" I asked.

"What's well?" he demanded. "Be precise." (He overuses that word, in my opinion.)

"The top fifth," I said.

"You mean the top quintile?" (Another word he loves).

"Yes, Joe, the top quintile."

"Better than even money: Three to two."

This sounded like an unfair advantage, but I hated coming off to Joe as a bleeding heart. "Of course, it's not fair," said Joe, reading my mind. "Believe you me, that's why I became a bookie. Quintile Power!" he said, laughing again. The phone started ringing and he reached for the receiver. "Look, doctor," he said over his shoulder, "I don't have all day to figure all this out for you."

I was beginning to get nervous, because my class on Friday had made the one demand professors most fear: "Enough questions, come back on Monday with some actual answers!" Then Joe, bless his crooked heart, saved the day.

"Louie, hold on a minute," he said to the bettor on the line. He pulled out a slip of paper from his back pocket and handed it to me: "Here. From this you can figure the odds yourself."

Joe's chart (at right) cleared up a lot of things for me, and I knew it would help Donaldson and Will, too (I'll send it along to them). First of all, it lets Clinton off the hook. Well, not entirely. But whatever Bill's sins, Joe's chart suggests that neither the President nor the Republicans nor the rest of the pols and pundits bashing him are the reason so few Americans will vote in November. Turnout is always lower in off-year elections than in presidential years-the chart shows that-but now, even in presidential years, it's only even money that voters will show up. Fact is, the odds have been getting worse for years. By 1996, only 49 percent showed up, the lowest since 1924.

But Joe's chart shows something else: Nonvoting is not simply part of the human condition. Even the "high" turnout election of 1960 was very low by European standards. Now it is just plain embarrassing. George Will disagrees, and has pointed out that the Nazis came to power in high turnout elections. When he sees Joe's chart, he'll be happy to learn that in voting turnout, we rate 35th among 37 world democracies. I wonder how he'll feel when he realizes that 34 nations, alarmingly, vote at rates higher than ours. Well, I suppose we'll have to fight them to preserve democracy, if it comes to that.

Now as to Joe becoming a bookie. When he got off the phone with Louie, I asked him why he came up with an index of political inequality.

"Look, Doc, all everybody ever wants to know from me is the odds. Take Louie. He never says 'Hello, Joe, how's the wife?' No, it's always 'What's the odds, Joe?' You too, Doc. You didn't even bring a piece of cake. I'm on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I needed a diversion."

I must have looked skeptical. "All right, I stole the idea from a book. But the index is really just another way of figuring the odds. All you do is divide voters in the lowest income quintile by voters in the top and bingo! You got your index. A one means that everyone's equal, and a zero is the opposite."

He saw my eyes begin to glaze, but was undeterred. "Take, for example, the presidential election of 1996: 38.7 percent of the bottom fifth voted, according to the Census surveys, versus 72.6 percent of the top, so you divide bottom by top and you get an index of .533. Which means someone in the bottom fifth is about half as likely to vote as someone in the top."

"What's that got to do with becoming a bookie?"

"I ain't no sap. I wanted to make sure that I made enough dough to vote, and besides, I always liked the numbers."

I thought better of pointing out he could still vote even if he weren't a well-heeled bookmaker. Instead I said, "Your chart shows inequality has been steadily growing, but I see a flaw."

"Give it to me straight, Doc."

"There could be years when the top and the bottom lose equal percentages of voters from their quintile, but the ratio would show inequality getting worse. What gives?"

"I see why you're a professor, Doc, and you've got a point. But you're forgetting about voting strength." I hate when he gets that superior look and he sure had it now.

"Look, Doc, suppose I got a gang of 50 guys and you got a gang of 50 guys. Now say I knock off 30 of your guys and you knock off 10 of mine. I'm in good shape, I got 80 percent left. You only got 40 percent. Now let's suppose we each knock off another 20 percent. Now you got 20 percent left, but I got 60. So I wind up with three times your muscle, even though we both just lost 20 percent. It's the same with voting."

That's why Joe became a bookie!

Voting rights? Fuhgeddaboutit! On the subway back to Manhattan, it dawned on me what Joe was trying to drill into my thick skull. Deducting the same percentage from already unequal turnouts means that the lower turnout group is losing more of its ability to influence elections. No wonder Joe's making a fortune.

The following Monday I was ready with my lecture.

"If there's an iron law of politics," I told my class, "it may be this: The lower the turnout, the greater the class and education gap in voting.

"To illustrate, consider this: The bottom-income quintile's 1996 turnout was just 71.5 percent of its 1964 level. That's a 28.5 percent loss in voting strength, twice what the top lost. The bottom's influence in elections today is now less than ever.

"The growth in inequality is even more dramatic when education is considered," I intoned. "By 1996, a person with a college education-about one-fifth of the population-was more than twice as likely to vote as someone with three years of high school or less-also about one-fifth. These huge disparities do not exist in Europe. It is in America that socioeconomic status plays an important role in determining who votes."

Now I awaited the storm. First, Peter's predictable: "What does it mean today?" I was ready. "It means that those who are falling behind in the global economy are becoming weaker politically as well, and less able to protect themselves in Washington. All other political activities-lobbying, or giving money to candidates, for example-are far less egalitarian than voting. Voting should be the democratic counterweight, but it's not." Peter bought it. As I expected, Paul turned up the pressure: "If we are unique in voting at such low levels, what can we do about it?"

Panic. I couldn't find Joe's List of Solutions. Then Mary, bless her heart, saved the day. "Tell the President and Congress that this is the real crisis facing the republic. And it's not going away, whether or not the President is. It's time we deal with it." Yeah, I thought, and appoint Joe the Bookie to head a National Commission on Nonvoting. Believe you me, he knows just what to do.

Most Popular
In this article: