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STANFORD -- There is good news and bad news for disenchanted voters, Stanford University political scientist Luis Fraga says.

Most have probably suspected his bad news:

"A vote in our system of government is a very ineffective way to tell a politician what you think of him or her," said the expert on voting and democratic participation patterns in the United States.

The good news: Real choices will appear on the ballot if individuals take the time to do a little more than just cast votes.

"People need to push themselves to identify their own needs," said Fraga, who has studied how urban ethnic-minority communities build the "civic will" to take action. The most effective get together with their neighbors and "ask each other if they're happy and what government can do about it."

"It isn't enough to oppose crime or poverty," he said. "You need to talk with people in your community and identify the specific crack house you want closed down and the corner that needs a stoplight."

Armed with a better idea of what they and their neighbors want, American voters can force the emergence of candidates who represent real choices, he said.

"There's no guarantee a candidate will follow through on what you want, but if you tell all of them what you want, you can force them to take a stand," Fraga said. "We often don't have a clear choice on the ballot today because candidates avoid taking positions and get away with it."

Much of the current frustration expressed about American politics is rooted in the intentional choices made by the founding fathers, Fraga said. In Federalist Paper 10, James Madison argued that large Congressional districts and winner-take-all elections would keep representatives accountable to people with varied self-interests; that would keep a young, disparate nation together.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought more varied voices into the system, Fraga said. While some political scientists have argued that the act has increased racial conflict, Fraga believes that it brought the conflict into the political arena where people can work toward consensus.

In interviews with Fraga, many of the hundreds of Latino and African American officials elected to local office as a result of the act expressed frustration about the difficulty of convincing a white majority to support programs to fight urban poverty.

"The new interests represented must take some responsibility now for devising their own solutions, but they are frustrated that they have to do that in a larger arena, whether it be the city council, the state or national level," he said. "They are effective advocates, but they are learning that there are limits to what you can do in our system as an advocate. You can't just walk in at the state or national level and say, 'Give this to us because we want it.' You have to convince others it's also in their self-interest. You point out, for instance, that it costs the taxpayer more to keep a young man in jail than to send him to Harvard for four years."

Scholars, too, must develop a consensus for solutions they advocate, Fraga said.

"I think we all have to learn to move beyond self-advocacy, to decide that we will work together based on a full knowledge of other people's different views. That is the way you get consensus to take action."



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