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Apathetic non-voters silently endorse special interests

PLEASE don't vote. That way, when I vote, mine counts more, and as the newest voter in Charlottesville, I like that idea. Because if you don't vote and that guy handing out Bibles on the Corner doesn't vote, my voice counts for all three of us. With a 36-percent voter turnout in 1998, that third of the population spoke for all of us - one vote was, in effect, three.

That means that if I vote, I speak for two of you. That means that if the Bible guy votes, he speaks for one Muslim who didn't vote and one atheist who didn't vote. That means that when Pat Buchanan votes in this year's presidential election, he speaks for three people.

Voter turnout in 1998 was the lowest since 1942. In 1942 we had an excuse - a large part of our population was abroad and fighting a war, and quite a few more were stashed away in internment camps. Today we are basically at peace abroad, which frees all of us to vote. But a domestic political war rages. We are at war against apathy.

Most Americans feel they are in the majority. They consider themselves "moderate," "center-right" or "center-left." They think there are enough people to speak for them - they don't have to add to the throngs.

But the throngs are not "moderate" anymore. Those with incentives to vote are not those who consider themselves strongly in the majority - they are the special interest groups with agendas. They are the ones trying to change our system to the way they think it should be. They are Buchanan's followers who want the Ten Commandments in classrooms or the strongly pro-life or pro-choice activists. These special interest groups are the ones who realize that their vote does matter.

Your vote matters too. You may think that you're a comfortable majority, but if pressed hard enough we all will express minority views. What do you think about the abortion debate? Do you want government managing health care? Should we pay our United Nations dues? Should we have invaded Kosovo? Should government provide vouchers for religious education? Should Clinton have been removed from office? The combination of your answers makes you an individual. Your individualism makes your vote different than anyone else's.

The downward trend in voting has been interrupted twice - once in 1982 and once in 1994. Both times the electorate was mad, first at the recession and next at Clinton's presidency. These were "anger votes," demonstrating what it takes to get people to the booths. Looming poverty and scandal are a high price to pay for real democracy.

Voting in anger or desperation can be highly dangerous. Most Democrats would readily agree, considering the Republican invasion of 1994. But there are more notorious examples: Hitler came to office on a rising tide of popular fury. Much of Iraq's misinformed population still supports Saddam Hussein.

Americans are much better informed, though, yes? Perhaps, but what information most people get is a sound byte on the nightly news - a 30-second emotional blurb on "the fleecing of America." News reports are meant to get ratings - they want to play to the emotional side, to our anger. This sort of snap reaction to politics is far from conducive to a rational discussion of the real issues. Once again, special interest groups and that third of the population will be the ones who are better informed and making the voting decisions.

Emotional issues are important, especially in defining who we are as a society, but most "newsworthy" issues, like whether the President inhaled or the most recent development in the abortion debate, will never directly affect most Americans' lives. It's the low-profile boring stuff that tends to matter most.

If Alan Greenspan gets a little paranoid and raises interest rates, those with college loans get stuck with the payments. Clinton's decision on whether or not to let the government invest in the stock market could dramatically change the way our country, even the world, runs. Will we end up supporting the entire baby boomer generation in their old age? Only Congress will decide, and who is there to decide is up to us, if we vote. If we don't, the Pat Buchanans of the world will, or the Ross Perots of the world will, or the American Association of Retired Persons will. Our silence is a tacit endorsement of their voices.

Please don't vote. I'll be happy to speak for you. I keep up with most issues the best I can, and as a born-and-bred semi-conservative southern Catholic Republican I've got a good idea of what I think our government should do. I sent my registration in two days ago - you have until Oct. 4 to send in yours.

(Emily Harding's column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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