Too big to vote small this month

Posted: Nov 06, 2002 12:00 AM
The Washingtonian magazine wondered whether Beltway pundits who "analyze and moralize without pause" actually vote. The answer isn't pretty. The magazine found that in Washington, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd missed nine of 12 elections from 1994 to 2000, while Time writer Margaret Carlson missed eight primary and general elections. CNN's Judy Woodruff skipped seven of 12 elections. In the suburbs, N.Y. Times columnist William Safire voted in seven of 11 elections -- which is darn respectable in this group -- but MSNBC's Chris Matthews voted in three of 10. The pundits tended to blow off local ballots, but some of the biggies missed major elections. It's as if they never heard of absentee ballots. Matthews kindly returned my call. He said he once was turned away from the polls because an absentee ballot had been sent out. Otherwise, Matthews voted in major general elections. "It's fair to say I've voted in every election I've ever talked about," said Matthews. But, and this is nothing to write home about, Matthews explained: "My knowledge or interest in local elections is not there. I vote in national elections. I vote when I know the candidates. If I don't, I don't vote." Matthews said he lives in suburban Washington, but would vote locally if he lived in San Francisco. Time's Carlson said she had voted in presidential and District of Columbia mayoral races (unless they were done deals). As for the eight missed races, she said: "Either I was out of town or I was negligent. And I should be chastised for it. There's no excuse." Tsk. Tsk. If there's one quote I shouldn't have to throw at Beltway pundits, it's Tip O'Neill's "All politics is local." No voter should stick only to high-profile contests. Today's councilwoman may be tomorrow's controller and tomorrow's controller's may be president some day. "How can we get good candidates?" people ask all the time. The answer is: Vote in primaries and local races. When you vote in a primary, you increase your chances of liking your picks. When you vote locally, your vote has more weight. (I should disclose that since I moved to Oakland in 1994, I've voted in every election except for two special elections. One was a bond measure. The other race pitted a candidate whose machine gave away chicken dinners to primary election voters against a hopeful who unforgivably advocated making commuters take the bus to BART.) You have to wonder if demi-voting pundits ever bashed a rich novice for running for office even though he or she had skipped voting in recent elections. Often the richies didn't vote, but wrote checks for other candidates -- as if that were more important. Their corollary would be pundits who opine without punching the ballot. Then the windbags wonder why turnout is so low. On Monday, Safire opined in The New York Times on "that miserable 40 percent turnout" expected in the Florida governor's race. "The reason for failing to vote is that we are lazy and do not want to take the trouble to fulfill our civic responsibilities," he wrote. "Too many of us would rather kvetch than vote." Sunday, Dowd wrote about the status of women in Saudi Arabia, where women can't vote. It rings hollow when you discover that the author frequently couldn't be bothered to vote. Maybe voting is just for the little people -- people so unimportant that they read ballot arguments and care about who's on the school board. Thanks, Washingtonian, for the reminder that citizens have a responsibility to be informed and then to vote. The story suggests an idea for a get-out-the- vote campaign. The slogan could be: Be better than a pundit -- vote in every election.