There is an American political tragedy in the making this presidential election year. As the campaign enters the home stretch, polls are telling us some disturbing news about the American voter. the level of undecided voters -- 13 percent -- is the highest in recent memory, at this state of presidential election year contest. And the turnout on Nov. 4 may be even lower than in 1976, when less than 56 percent of the citizens of voting age showed up at the polls.
What's wrong? Why are so many people finding it hard to make up their minds? Has campaign rhetoric convinced all too many people that "they're all alike?" Could it be that the 30-and 40-second news reports on radio and the two-minute snippets on nighty TV news broadcasts, the wire service summaries on the front pages of local newspapers, and the stream of simplistic, one-sided, image- making campaign spots and printed advertisements aren't enough? Is voter participation anemic because citizens are starved for solid information -- presently not provided in a form that permits comparisons -- about the candidate's stands on the life-and-death issues confronting us at home and abroad?
I don't pretend to know the answers to these questions. Althoug voters must take their own responsibility for casting their ballots, I dom know that not all the blame for public apathy can be laid at the doorstep of the voter. I feel, as many Americans do, that the public is not well served by the current impasse over presidential debates.
We saw in 1960, 1976, and at the one League of Women Voters Education fund-sponsored presidential debate this year in Baltimore that debates can help to clarify candidates' positions on the issues. More than 50 million Americans were tuned in to the Baltimore event. And millions more throughout the country have turned out for league-sponsored candidate nights. That doesn't sound like apathy. That sounds like an electorate hungry for information.
The debates impasse has occured despite the fact that both major party candidates publicly stated earlier this year without reservation that they would participate in debates sponsored by the league's Education Fund should they win their respective party's nomination (President Carter at the league's national convention on May 5, 1980, and Governor Reagan at the Education Fund-sponsored presidential forum on April 23 , 1980).
As many readers know the League of Women Voters has had to cancel two events in its planned presidential debates series because the candidates failed to reach agreement. A vice-presidential debate planned for the week of Oct. 2 in Louisville, Ky., fizzled when Ambassador George Bush chose not to participate. Vice-President Walter Mondale had hinged his acceptance of our invitation on Ambassaodr Bush's acceptance. A debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan proposed for the week of Oct. 13 in Portland, Ore., was cancelled because the candidates could not agree on terms.
Will it take a display of public outrage to smoke out the two major party candidates and move them to a face-to-face exchange of views on the issues? I'm beginning to think so. But there is still time for Governor Reagan and President Carter to dispense with political expediency and display a level of responsibility to the American electorate that befits the Oval Office.
The League of Women voters Education Fund stands ready to sponsor a debate between these two candidates as a way of discharging its own responsibility to the nation's voters. It's now up to the candidates to prove they have the wit and wisdom to seize the opportunity to address us all about their vision of this country's future and their respective programs for dealing with the unsolved problems on the national agenda.