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Why vote? Perhaps because many hands make light(er) work

August 22, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

I sense I may be coming to a crossroads, as are many middle-age people I talk to. In 40 years, either we'll be banging our canes on the floor yelling at some political hack on C-Span, or we will be out fishing, completely divorced from the process.

Judging by Bob Maginnis' column of this past Wednesday, a gentleman named Michael Myers is wrestling with this same issue - although at age 24, his crossroads is coming earlier than most.

Myers says he has never voted, then proceeds to lay out some solid reasons why: The candidates are the same, they're all beholden to rich, special interests and they never get around to helping average people or taking tough, unpopular stands for the ultimate benefit of society.

The idea was for us to convince Michael to vote, but by the end of it, he had almost convinced me not to.

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I think he's right on every count. So the question becomes, knowing all of the above, do we vote anyway?

To arrive at the truth, some of the superfluous tinsel around voting needs to be stripped away. Failure to vote does not make a person an unpatriotic demon. Failure to vote does not threaten to undermine democracy. Failure to vote isn't the reason politics have fallen to their present, subterranean levels.

When people make these arguments, intelligent non-voters are unlikely to be swayed. They probably know people who don't vote, who nevertheless do great work in their homes, churches or communities.

They probably know that democracy has worried along despite episodes of low voter turnout. And they are no doubt smart enough to wonder whether someone who has not bothered to educate himself on the candidates is really doing democracy a favor by showing up at the polls anyway out of a sense of duty.

Finally, they probably understand that not voting is unto itself a vote. It may be a vote of disillusionment, a vote of no confidence, or conversely a vote of confidence - a feeling that both candidates are reasonably qualified and our system will operate relatively well under either one.

Our system, at the moment, is the best the world has to offer, which is not to say it is without its flaws. Indeed, some of these "flaws" were built in by the Founding Fathers on purpose. It is no accident that change in government is difficult. Aware of the undesirability of mob rule and the concept that government is prone to engage in dumb activities, the framers bestowed all sorts of road blocks on our political process.

There is value in the fact that change is hard, because as difficult as it may be for our the system to change for the better, it is equally as hard for our system to change for the poorer. Time tends to be a better adjudicator than man. An anti-flag-burning amendment was all the rage a decade ago, and if change were easy it would be law.

But the arduous process wore down the supporters. This was proper, because a society complacent with abridging the statements of flag burners isn't so very far away from complacency at the suggestion of abridging the statements of talk-radio hosts or newspaper columnists. Time did its work; few could reasonably argue that today we are materially worse off because there is no flag burning amendment to our Constitution.

But non-voters and voters alike should have a reasonable expectation that improvement, however incremental, is possible. Legitimately, a lot of people don't have that sense today. It's nonsensical to lecture non-voters by telling them if they don't vote they have no right to complain. You might as well argue that people who don't give to UNICEF have no right to complain about world hunger.

Non-voters do have a legitimate gripe when they point out that the candidates differ little, and that there are few bold enough to propose meaningful change, much less carry it out. If you wish to bring about change you have to vote? I've been voting more often than not since I was 18 and I detect no change. So how can I tell Michael that venturing to the polls will bring about satisfaction?

My answer would be this: People are not as individual as they might seem. There is a web of human fabric and electronic brain impulses and a collective psyche that unites us all in ways that we can't see and don't understand. It's the same way you can "feel the energy in the air" at a football stadium when so many souls are all excitedly rooting for the same result. No one has ever seen this energy, but no one would ever dispute it exists.

So perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to think that the same inputs and impulses and thought processes that stir one person to get into the voting booth for the first time are simultaneously striking someone in Montana. And New Mexico and Georgia and across the land. If you act on your impulse to vote, perhaps thousands of other people who feel the same as you will act upon the same impulse. And that's how change, however glacially slow it may be, begins - through a collective will.

And besides, there is a more tangible, less esoteric benefit, which I can report to people who have never voted. I equate voting with getting your teeth cleaned - it may be painful to do, but when you walk out the door, it does feel pretty good.

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