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'Election? What Election?' - A Commentary

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Last week was so-called Super Tuesday. Today is our primary here in Texas. From all the media coverage, you might think we were flocking to the polls, eager to record our preference for the leader who could tackle the economy and war in Iraq.

In last week's Super Tuesday, Senator Kerry was described as achieving a "stunning victory." The reality is somewhat different. Actually, almost no one voted.

In Rhode Island, barely 6% of eligible voters turned out. In one town, Woonsocket, just 3.2% of voters bothered to vote. City officials had to close half the polling places.

Well, you say, Rhode Island is a tiny place; surely in a highly political, sophisticated state like New York, everyone voted. No. Voter turnout was low. In one county, at 16.8%, it was a 20-year low.

In 2000, in one of the most hotly-contested and bitterly debated elections, Bush versus Gore, many states had less than half of eligible voters turn out. In Florida, where the election was supposedly lost or stolen - depending on your political point of view - only three-quarters of eligible voters are registered to vote and 68% of them - or only half of the people who could vote - did.

Some countries have mandatory voting, and not necessarily like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, where he won the last election with an amazing 100% of the vote. 'Course, he had no opposition, or any that lived to campaign and tell about it.

Most countries with mandatory voting don't do much if you don't vote, but saying voting is mandatory seems to change behavior and turnout is much higher. Only Singapore is serious. Of course, these are the people who don't allow gum chewing in public. In Singapore, if you don't vote, they take you off the rolls and you have to reapply, and provide a compelling reason.

Should we make voting mandatory? Probably not. We can't even enforce litter laws, so we certainly wouldn't do anything to people who don't vote.

Maybe we could get more people to vote if we gave them a way to express their dissatisfaction with the available choices. Years ago, Roger Ailes wrote a piece called "None of the Above," in which he argued that voters should be given a choice called "None of the Above." He then designed a whole campaign for "None of the Above," complete with slogans and ads.

The merit in this suggestion would be that no one would have an excuse for not voting by saying they don't like any of the candidates.

I'd like to see some incentives for the candidates to take responsibility for encouraging voters to vote, something like, if 70% of the registered electorate doesn't bother to vote, the election doesn't count. This would link the candidates' success to getting voters interested enough to vote.

In 1780, Edmund Burke observed that all that was required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Evil in today's terms means the failure to deal with long-term issues like the insolvency of Social Security, the multiple causes of the woeful state of education, and similarly complex reasons why we're obese and don't take care of ourselves.

A political philosopher observed that citizens get the government they deserve. If we don't vote, we don't deserve much.


Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant in Dallas.