Voting, among other debased rights

Posted: Oct 24, 2000 12:00 AM
We've had a presidential election going on around here for, oh, I'd guess since Noah's ark fetched up on Mt. Ararat, or maybe the Saturday afterward; the first such election of the new millennium. On its outcome ride matters of urgency. How is it that, according to the political scientists and pollsters, so many people 1) can't make up their minds, or 2) don't plan to make up their minds? It's because -- a wild guess -- we have, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently, diminished and undercut the once-high privileges of citizenship. More of that in a moment. First, a word about the grievous, in some eyes, evidences of apathy toward voter participation. By some predictions, fewer than half our eligible voters will show up at the polls to decide who runs the world's most powerful nation. Britain's Daily Telegraph talks of America's "somnolent electorate." The third presidential debate was geared to the fancied interests of "the undecided," who, nevertheless, as a New York political scientist put it, "aren't watching these debates." The New Republic's Michelle Cottle quotes studies showing "that your average (undecided voter) either doesn't understand or doesn't much care about our political system and thus winds up voting for whichever candidate gives her that warm and fuzzy feeling in the tummy." And then there's the 19-year-old literature major at Davidson College -- literature, Davidson; you'd assume some smarts, wouldn't you? -- who told the New York Times Magazine that she gets all her political opinions from the late-night talk show hosts. Jay Leno as Plato. I see. I see, for sure, that we are in some trouble. Yet the earnest and well-intentioned continue to flap their gums about "turnout." If we are really lucky -- given the level of interest now on display -- maybe we'll experience record-low turnouts this year. It could inspire us to wonder how things got this way. Things weren't supposed to be this way. That all citizens might exercise the most sacred privilege of democratic citizenship -- that of voting -- our democracy has eliminated, since World War II, virtually all voting qualifications, while peddling the doubtful notion that one vote is about as good as the next vote. We've lowered the voting age to 18; we register people when they get their driver's licenses; "early voting" goes on for days and days; we translate ballots and voting materials into foreign languages (raising the obvious question: How come people who can't or won't read English are presumed qualified to decide the affairs of an English-speaking nation?). The one thing the government hasn't done -- yet -- is offer dinner for four at Wendy's to citizens who exercise a right won and preserved for them at Yorktown and Normandy. In Labor-run Britain, where local elections last spring drew only a 30 percent turnout, there are calls for compulsory voting. Coming to a police station near you: the election. The quest to universalize voter participation rests on the assumption that people view voting as a sacred trust and privilege. Well, they must! (Mustn't they?) Not on present evidence. In Anno Domini 2000, the right to vote is about as prized as the right to running water in the men's room. Voting doesn't require intelligence, exertion or a sense of responsibility to the community. You study, you cogitate, and your vote gets neatly canceled by some literature "student" who takes her viewpoints from Leno. It can discourage. That which isn't special, or demanding, or prized, is hard to get worked up about -- no matter how important (as with voting) it may be intrinsically. People who, by this stage, don't know what presidential candidate they favor -- you hope they just plain skip the election. You really do. One parting thought: There could be a dead fish here even smellier than the quest to universalize voting. What if politics has plain worn us down after years of hearing politicians invite us to view them as our saviors? Feeling saved these days? Me neither. Possibly we ought to. The presidential candidates lure us with offers to tone up bodies (prescription drugs) and brains (public school achievement), noting occasionally -- Bush more often than Gore -- that government's presence in our lives is rarely determinative of true health and happiness. Smaller, less arrogant government might make the vote seem as important as it once did. But there I go again, daydreaming.