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Chicago Sun Times

Apathy's all in the family
By Cindy Richards
March 20, 2002

As you read this, a few lucky candidates are making the rounds of morning news shows. No rest for the victorious.

As I write this, it is Tuesday morning, and this election day still holds the promise that Illinoisans will slog their way to the polls in record numbers.

Predictions, however, are that they won't.

And why not? Because non-voters don't want to declare their party preference. Or so media reports would have us believe. Asking for either a Democratic or a Republican ballot would violate their privacy, those media pundits say.

Well, I have yet to meet any of those non-voters who don't vote because they feel their privacy is too precious to violate, or any other equally lofty reason, for that matter. I seem to meet only non-voters who are lazy. Or apathetic. Or uninterested.

The closest I have ever come to hearing a lofty reason for not voting is the all-too-common excuse that the campaign mudslinging is a great big turnoff.

Those non-voters see it as somehow nobler to stay home than to become a party to such a poisoned process.

Perhaps it is the sorry social circles in which I run, but I see only two types of voters: those who vote and those who don't bother.

And the don't botherers are taking over.

The International Institute for Democracy and Election Assistance conducted a global survey of voter turnout in the 1990s and ranked the United States at 140--nestled between Chad and Botswana--with a 44.9 percent average turnout in national elections.

Turn to state and local races in off-year elections, like Tuesday's, and Americans have stayed away from the polls in droves, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy. Some local races have attracted fewer than 10 percent of registered voters--a statistic that becomes even more disturbing when you realize that only about half of eligible voters bother to register.

Bill Clinton, the former president everyone loved to hate, was re-elected in 1996 with a ''mandate'' provided by fewer than one in four eligible voters. In 1998, the last off-year congressional election, turnout nationally was just 36.4 percent of registered voters.

The Center for Voting and Democracy asked young people to write essays on why Gen-Xers don't vote in greater numbers. The contest generated an astounding 9,000 essays.

Some reflected a distressing disconnection with the political process.

Politicians aren't talking about issues that affect young people. Voting won't make a difference. No one has bothered to educate young people about the process or the candidates (as though it's our fault they didn't bother to read the newspaper or log onto a candidate's Web site).

Others offered suggestions on ways to increase participation, from Internet voting to requiring all candidates to make campaign stops at college campuses.

But none of the essayists placed blame where blame is due: on Mom and Dad.

Certainly, it is my parents' fault that I vote. Or, more correctly, it is my parent's fault that I wouldn't consider not voting. I have missed only one primary election in all my years as an eligible voter. I was sidelined with the flu, but I still suffer pangs of guilt for not having dragged myself to the polling place to vote, even if it would have meant contaminating every one of the election judges.

Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said studies show that one of the best indicators of whether an individual will vote is whether his parents vote. When his organization polls high school students on whether they plan to vote once they turn 18, those who say their parents vote regularly are far more likely to indicate they will vote as well.

It doesn't bode well for a society where even the most compelling of campaigns--to elect the leader of the free world--can attract only one-fourth of eligible adults. We can only hope that members of the next generation conveniently forget what they learned from their parents.

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