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15,000 miles in an R.V, all in the name of voter turnout

Jay Sigal left Santa Barbara, Calif., Feb. 19 and will crisscross the country three times before reaching his final destination: Washington, D.C. on Nov. 4, Election Day.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2008



Santa Cruz, Calif.

Jay Sigal sold most of his possessions, bought an RV, and has just started a 15,000-mile mission to get more Americans to exercise their right to vote.

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He left from his hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif., last month, and he'll keep on trucking east, then west, then east again across the country three times until he winds up in the nation's capital on Nov. 4, Election Day.

Armed with a video camera, he hopes to conduct 1,200 interviews on the Washington Boulevards and Lincoln Avenues across the US, asking folks why they vote or why they don't.

In some ways, Mr. Sigal's quest is quintessentially American: dropping it all to hit the road from sea to shining sea. And as an ideal, few would quibble with voting's virtues, even if many don't bother. But Sigal's timing stands out: Voting booths haven't been this busy this early for decades.

"While this year it may end up being higher than it has been, overall voter turnout is still significantly lower than it needs to be," says Sigal. He points to an election in November in Santa Barbara when only 32 percent of registered voters turned out – an "appalling" figure that means more than two-thirds didn't bother.

"Voter awareness and voter participation is something that needs to be increased, and I've decided that I'm one person in this country that's going to go make an effort to see if that can actually happen," he says.

The former contractor and photographer hopes he can take this project and develop an organization that he could direct for the next 15 to 20 years.

First, he's on a nonpartisan mission to learn why more people don't vote, and what can be done to raise the percentages. He plans to post video he gathers on YouTube and write about his journey at electtovote.net.

For those who study turnout, this year's presidential primaries and caucuses have been ones for the record books. "If we look at the big historical picture, these could be turnout levels that we haven't seen for a century," says Michael McDonald, an expert in voter turnout at George Mason University in Virginia.

The reasons: Campaigns have fine-tuned tactics for bringing out supporters, and the races have captured voter imagination. "If you hold an interesting election, people will vote," says Dr. McDonald.

Driving much of that interest are the historic candidacies of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as concerns about the economy and the ongoing war in Iraq.

Voting percentages have been climbing since the turn of the century, and the red-blue polarization could be part of the reason.

"As the parties have grown more ideologically distinct, they have increasingly resorted to a mobilization-based strategy, as opposed to a persuasion-based strategy," says Donald Green, a Yale University professor who has studied how best to get voters to the polls.

He's found that face-to-face encounters work best. Campaigns have noticed and poured resources into getting volunteers to knock on doors and host events for neighbors.

Sigal's effort mirrors this street-level approach. He plans to go to downtown and main street areas as well as link up with a runner's network with local chapters, who can direct him to local spots to meet people. The trouble, of course, is that it takes many face-to-face contacts to make a difference.

"We know that it will probably increase the turnout rates among those he talks to by about 10 percent," says McDonald. "If there were 1,000 guys like this driving around in RVs, yeah, maybe it could have a cumulative effect."

So far, Sigal is off to a slow start. Troubles with his digital camera and a last-minute cracked tooth delayed his departure. By the time he reached Santa Cruz it had rained for four days straight.

"I woke up yesterday morning and I thought, my God, what have I done?" he says. "But I think the ultimate goal of the project is what's going to keep me going forward."

So why does Sigal want more people to vote? First of all, it's a duty – something that resonates with a man who volunteered to serve during the Vietnam War. But he also feels it could improve the nation's politics. "With an increase in voter turnout and participation ... you'd see a much more responsive form of government," says Sigal. "You get 60 percent of people voting and ... you are going to see the people that are elected to office realize that with those kind of numbers showing up you really have to perform as you say you are going to perform."

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