Think primaries

Political speculation these days revolves around the question of how many seats the Democrats will pick up in Congress or how many governorships the Republicans will win or lose around the country. The 1982 election will be especially important not only as a kind of referendum on the Reagan presidency but as a gauge of America's ideological mood after the conservative sweep two years ago. But it may not be a fair judge of what the American people think if they do not get out and vote. And vote in the primaries as well as the main event.

Many primaries already have been held, including the lively Republican primary in California to select candidates for governor and senator and this week's Alaska and Oklahoma contests. However, it is not too late to ''think primaries.'' A whole slew of them for national, state, and local offices are coming up in September - from Maryland and Rhode Island in the east to Utah and Hawaii in the west. Some of them, like the Democratic races for governor in Massachusetts and New York, are highly competitive, giving voters a clear-cut choice between conservative and liberal candidates. In Washington, D.C., whoever becomes the Democratic candidate for mayor is virtually certain to win the election. In many cases, especially in the South where the Democrats dominate, it is only in the primaries where citizens can express a preference for the kind of candidate they want, making the primaries more important than the election itself.

Yet the season is a reminder that Americans have a poor record in terms of participation in the electoral process. The voter turnout in the 1980 election was the lowest in 32 years - less than 54 percent of the voting age population went to the polls. It is true that these percentages look brighter if calculated only on the basis of registered voters. But the trend toward less and less public participation in the nation's electoral system needs to be reversed. A measure of the problem can be seen in a Gallup poll earlier this month which found that, with only three months to go before November 2, more than half the nation's eligible voters did not know the name of the congressman for their district.

Surely democracy functions less effectively when citizens, out of indifference or for other reasons, opt out of the election process, just as it works better when they assume the responsibility of citizenship and make themselves heard. We would not exaggerate the problem. The United States is one of the few countries of the world that offers voters a say in the selection of political candidates. There is plenty of evidence to show that where a real contest exists - and where the public is stirred up by an issue - voter turnout can be high even in the primaries. Also, the American people participate in the democratic process through other means than just their political parties.

But this is no excuse for Americans not to pull up their civic socks. They can make sure they are registered, study who the candidates and what the issues are, vote in the primaries - and go to the polls in November with the satisfaction of knowing that they are making their voices count.

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