Gallatin, Tenn. — `VOTER registration forms here,'' reads a cardboard sign, lettered by hand with a red Magic Marker and taped on the wall of the Gallatin Fish Market. The market is a takeout joint specializing in fried fish and chicken livers, set on the wrong side of the tracks in this factory town, among tobacco warehouses and small, sagging houses. Milton Woods, a white-haired man who owns the restaurant with his wife, put up the sign before a local referendum last year. ``Especially the young people, a lot of them haven't voted. They don't know the procedure,'' he says, estimating that he has helped some 300 new voters file registration forms.
In the view of Mr. Woods, who also owns an insulation business, ``everybody ought to have enough sense to register to vote.'' But others see the matter differently. ``They're all crooks,'' shrugs J.C. Brady, referring to the political candidates. Mr. Brady, who works with Woods, has never registered to vote.
``We got to take chances,'' Woods contends, in what is by now a familiar dialogue between the two. ``If you don't like the guy, take him out next time.'' But Brady just shakes his head.
Their difference is one that divides the nation more deeply than any candidate or party. One-hundred-and-fifty years after Tennessee native Andrew Jackson spoke out for the right of the common man to participate in democracy, outcomes of presidential elections are being determined by about half of all eligible voters. State and local elections are decided by an even smaller number.
Here in middle Tennessee in 1988, there are a lot of reasons to expect a good voter turnout. This year's presidential candidates include Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore and Southerners Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson. But here, as elsewhere, citizens are split between those who play a part in the democratic process of electing a government and those who do not.
While voters may believe that the greatest threat to democracy is citizen apathy, nonvoters have a variety of explanations for their position. Some even claim they are doing the country a service.
``The majority of the people running, a year ago I never heard of them,'' says Jim Searle, a nonvoter, who's tending two fishing rods at a bridge over Old Hickory Lake.
``I figure it's better for me to stay out of it and let the people who do know something decide it,'' he reasons.
Others consider the entire cast of candidates unpalatable. ``I haven't voted since I got out of the Navy in 1974,'' says Don Broussard, who runs a car wash in an empty tobacco warehouse in Gallatin. ``There hasn't been anybody to vote for.''
Still others see voting as a form of collaboration with unsavory politicians.
``I don't vote for none of them,'' emphasizes Larry Brooks, as he wipes clean a windshield at a gas station on the outskirts of Hartsville. ``Somebody don't like 'em, they can't look at me.''
But whether they chose to participate or not, most see casting one vote among millions as a largely symbolic act, with a different meaning for every citizen. Many of those who are voting this year in the presidential primaries doubt that their candidate can win the final election. The vote is just a way of showing support for the candidate or his ideas.
``Just about everybody here is pro-Jackson,'' says Rev. James Peters, referring to his congregation at Key Stewart Methodist Church in Gallatin, which sent three choirs to a Jackson rally last Friday. ``I don't think he has a ghost of a chance,'' Dr. Peters says, ``but it's solidarity.''
``I'm going to vote for Albert Gore,'' says Brenda Webb of Hendersonville, surprised that anyone would have to ask. ``I don't think we have a prayer, but we're just so proud of him.''
The indifference of nonvoters frustrates political campaigners who believe in their candidate. Sherry Jo Anderson, a student at Tennessee State University in Nashville, is amazed to find that many students know so little about the candidate she has spent months campaigning for, Senator Gore.
Neal Chenault, a student at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, has managed to recruit only 15 members, from a student population of 4,000, for a Young Republicans group he started on campus last quarter. Many students and professors are Democrats, he says, but far more are simply unconcerned.
While he was putting up a poster announcing the showing of a Dole video, Mr. Chenault recalls, one woman told him she didn't think it mattered who won. ``I kind of anticipate a low turnout'' for the video, he says.
Debra Davis and her husband used their wedding list to send out personal letters urging citizens to vote for Pat Robertson. But even working with her friends and church members, the Davises are having a hard time filling their campaign goal of eight new supporters committed to vote for Mr. Robertson. ``This is almost Super Tuesday, and still no one cares,'' Mrs. Davis sighs.
Among those backing longshot candidates, a long-range view is popular. ``He's young enough he can run again, if...,'' says Gore backer Wyatt Allen of Dixon Springs, unwilling to voice the possibility of defeat. ``Come back in two years and look at the local and state candidates this organization has elected,'' says Robertson campaigner Ken Dockery of Hendersonville. ``Even if Pat doesn't win, he's making an impact.''
But there are those who feel a sense of personal connection with the democratic process regardless of who is running and who wins. ``Oh, I vote,'' says a middle-aged cashier, closing up for the evening at the Hank Williams Jr. Museum and Gift Shop in Nashville. ``That's the only privileges a woman has is to vote and have young'uns.''
``I always vote,'' says Steve Nichols, manager of Boot County, ``the largest boot dealer east of the Mississippi,'' located in Hendersonville. He adds, ``A lot of people in the world don't have a choice.''
This year, ``since Al Gore's running from Tennessee, it's caused people to wake up,'' notes Nichols, a registered Republican. ``It gets people involved, which is good regardless of which way they vote.''
Every four years, Nichols gets together with friends to watch the election returns on TV.
``It's exciting,'' he says, although ``it hasn't been as good the last couple of years because it's over too soon.'' Even so, he says he enjoys the election process because ``it's the only time the whole country does something together.''
Not quite the whole country, though. Boot Country bookkeeper Karen Smith, working at her computer behind the counter, says she has no plans to vote. She isn't even registered.