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Crews prepare for the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney at the University of Denver.

Romney, Obama can help democracy in presidential debates

Voter interest in the 2012 election is down. Mitt Romney and President Obama must use the unique opportunity of the presidential debates to engage those not likely to vote.

If the White House is the bully pulpit, the presidential debates are the rally pulpit.

These pivotal performances are the one big chance for candidates to not only win over those inclined to vote but also reach the more than a third of Americans who generally don’t cast ballots in national elections.

Each major-party candidate knows he must use these televised debates to reach into the homes of today’s nonvoters – who may be apathetic, angry, or disaffected – and rouse them to get to the polls.

Why should the candidates care about nonvoters who sit on their hands?

If past elections are any guide, neither President Obama or Mitt Romney will win the largest percentage of eligible voters – the nonvoters. In other words, the electoral mandate of the next president will be weak if the number of people who don’t vote is greater than those who vote for him.

The disputes during the debates over policy, character, or record should be secondary to each candidate’s task of encouraging every American – not just those in their parties – to vote.

And on one point Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney can agree: The decision not to vote sends a subtle message that an individual can’t make a difference.

Democracy is based on the very idea that sovereignty lies with the individual – not the state, corporation, union, or any group. To essentially deny that point by not voting is to give a heave-ho to an idea that took centuries and many lives to bring to about half of humanity today.

Compared with the last three presidential elections, voter “engagement” in 2012 is down, according to a recent Gallup poll. Experts point to any number of reasons for this lack of enthusiasm, such as Democrats’ disappointment with Obama’s record or Republicans feeling disconnected from Romney.

But in 2012, there is also the factor of financial strains felt by those with an insecure job or a home mortgage that is underwater. These difficulties can discourage many people from voting. Distrust of government runs high when the economy is laid low.

Voter turnout also tends to be the lowest in states with the highest poverty and the lowest education levels. That has serious consequences. Not only does low turnout produce a government that has unequal representation, it also has economic effects. A 2011 study by the National Conference on Citizenship found that states with high levels of civic engagement prior to the Great Recession ended up having less unemployment.

Voting takes time, commitment, and learning, all of which are easy to give up for other things, especially if one is cynical about politicians, the role of money in campaigns, the benefits of voting, or whatever excuse is handy on the first Tuesday in November.

But voting is an affirmation of a precious commodity: the right of each individual to be a worthy member of society, or what is called “rights.” Ignoring that fact by not going to the polls means power may someday slip to a despot.

Presidential debates can make or break a candidate’s bid for four years in the White House. But in the degree to which they can inspire voters to exercise their voting rights, they can also make or break a democracy.

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