Nonvoters: deciding not to decide

Between now and November, political campaigns will spend millions of dollars. They'll consume thousands of hours of television time. They'll ink tons of newsprint. And in the end, if 1988 is like 1984, nearly 82 million eligible Americans won't vote. That's right: 82 million people. The whole population of Mexico. All of Britain and Canada combined.

Why this self-disenfranchisement, this voluntary surrender of a privilege that in so many nations is only a fervent hope?

The answers are legion. In part, they have to do with barriers that make voting difficult. The first is registration. Unlike many other nations, the United States has no government policy of seeking out and registering citizens. So registration must be self-initiated. The process is not complex. But it usually involves coming face to face with a bureaucracy - something Americans would rather not do.

The second barrier is voting itself. Some countries vote on Sundays. One can argue, of course, about violating the Sabbath - although in a nation where shopping malls are increasingly open on Sundays the argument sounds hollow. Americans vote on weekdays - either taking time away from work or rushing home before the polls close. Not easy for today's commuters.

The third barrier is the thoroughly human desire to avoid situations that show up one's ignorance. I know many people who pay diligent attention to national and international affairs. Yet the ballot they face may contain candidates and local issues they've never heard of - some of the latter worded so slyly that ``no'' means ``yes.'' Reading a local ballot, in fact, one can easily conclude that government is the private preserve of insiders - and that the rest of us are mere interlopers.

Those barriers would dwindle, of course, if there were obvious, tangible benefits for voting. Unfortunately, that's not the case: In an age of instant gratifications, voting provides only a tenuous, deferred fulfillment. Some nonvoters probably feel a single vote is too small to matter. Others may suspect that the ballot offers no real choices - that the political parties offer no genuine differences. For most, however, public issues probably don't seem relevant. Only a tiny fraction, according to political analysts, know the issues well and refuse to vote. The rest may simply be agreeing with a line from a 1960s song by Paul Simon: ``I get all the news I need on the weather report.''

High barriers, low rewards - and, perhaps, some ingrown inertia. Who, after all, really wants the situation changed? Do the nonvoters, who seem contented with the status quo? Do the parties, which sometimes worry that dormant citizens, if stirred out of hibernation, might flock to the opposite party? Do special-interest groups, which have more of the field to themselves when there are fewer players? Do elected officials, who have trouble enough responding to their constituents as it is?

There's an obvious conclusion here: Democracy in America is losing touch with its roots. Less obvious is the fact that those roots are not simply political, or historical, or intellectual, or social. They are moral. What keeps nonvoters from voting - and voters from making more strenuous efforts to reach out to them? The same failings that we decry in other areas of society: apathy, lack of commitment, refusal to trust, the lust for the quick fix, unwillingness to concentrate on complexity, selfishness.

How to turn 82 million nonvoters into voters? Not, in this country, by force of law: Our traditions, fortunately, are not so authoritarian. Nor by registration drives, longer hours at the polls, more focused issues, or even more-exciting candidates - though all those play a part. In the end, the cure needs to come where the problem resides: in the moral fabric of society.

In proportion as care, commitment, trust, patience, diligence, and unselfishness grow in the general public - and there is evidence, as the me-generation wanes, that this is happening - nonvoting should naturally recede. Short of that, there's no quick fix.

A Monday column

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