Mark your ballot during the commercials

November 07, 1995|By Ellen Goodman

PORTLAND, Oregon -- So much for voter turnout. The phrase may become obsolete. So much for exit polls. So much for polling booths and that traditional calendar event known as Election Day.

Oregon is embarking on an experiment that may do more than turn our political language upside down. It could make the old landscape, the visual image of voting, as quaint as a Norman Rockwell painting.

At off-year elections across the country today, politicians will be exhorting people to come to the ballot box. But next week Oregon will be sending the ballot box to the people. The special election to fill Bob Packwood's seat in the U.S. Senate will mark the first time in the country that a statewide federal election is conducted entirely by mail.

On November 15-17, primary ballots will go out to every registered voter and will be due back by 8 p.m. December 5. The general election ballots will go out two weeks before the January 30 deadline.

Like mailing the bills

Both these ''Election Days'' will come and go without lines at the school or firehouse, without poll workers wielding candidates' placards, without photos of candidates marching off to do their civic duty, without children tagging along to see democracy in action. Voting will take place informally and privately. Casting your vote will be as ceremonial as taking your bills to the mailbox.

''Think of it as if everyone were voting absentee,'' says Phil Keisling, the energetic and ruminative secretary of state who launched this experiment as a pragmatic attempt to get more people to participate. In the 1994 election, one out of four Oregon voters filled out absentee ballots.

Over the ubiquitous West Coast cup of coffee, Mr. Keisling confesses that he will personally miss taking his kids to the polls. He calls voting a ''civic religion.'' But he believes that having to get out to vote has become an obstacle to voting at all.

''In a society where so much is going on,'' he says, ''in a world of two-parent working families, even the best of intentions fall victim to a sick child, to having to work late, to the pressures of busy life.''

In many ways Americans are already ''absentees'' in political life. The old election rallies have been replaced by television debates and dueling commercials. Politics has become a spectator sport, and Americans couch-potato constituents.

The argument that dismally low voting rates are due to busy-ness rings hollow with Harvard's Robert Putnam, who's been studying what he calls ''civic disconnectedness,'' the unraveling of the individual from the community. He says that ''shortness of time is an excuse we use to ourselves.''

The low voter turnout is, he says, ''like a temperature in a child. It's a sign that something else is going on. I think I would favor voting by mail but it's a kind of aspirin.''

This aspirin has its side effects. Mr. Putnam coined the metaphor ''bowling alone'' to describe what's happening in America. People who once joined leagues are still bowling, but on their own. We're still banking, but at an ATM. We're still shopping, but more often by catalog. Voting alone is one of those small, isolated acts that add up, without our even knowing it, to a smaller, more isolated society.

Even Mr. Keisling says, ''I think the best argument against voting by mail is that 'Gee, at a time when we're more and more isolated from each other by class, age, race, the last thing we should be doing is doing away with the polls.' But, that disconnection occurs long before the final act of voting.''

''Let's not kid ourselves,'' he adds. ''The person who says that there's nothing worth going to the polls for, may also say there's nothing worth licking a stamp for. But the problem isn't how we cast the ballot, it's how few want to.''

Voting by mail is surely going to attract some marginal voters. It's convenient -- that watchword of the times -- cheaper for the state, and experience in smaller races suggests that it works. More votes are cast.

If I had to choose between more folks voting at home or fewer at the polls, I would go with the numbers and hope that just plain voting -- even alone -- would give people a stake in the outcome.

But I wonder how we build up common traditions, a sense of community, while the public rituals, the ceremonies and space are being so ''conveniently'' privatized.

This fall, Oregon is handing the election over to the postal workers. Let's just hope that people see a difference between ballots and junk mail.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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