Suffrage in the '90s

October 21, 1997|By Marie Cocco

THEY ARE AFRAID to make a mistake. Although they've been literally bombarded in the last few campaigns with a kaleidoscope of images and messages the candidates have calibrated especially for them, they don't get enough nonpartisan information to feel comfortable casting a ballot.

And to make voting all the more daunting, the prospect of enduring a long wait at the polls with a toddler clinging to one leg -- let alone squeezing such a trip into a mere 24-hour day -- is enough to make them want to forget the whole thing.

It's campaign season again and the pumped-up pace of last year's presidential race has given way this fall to a somnambulant stroll toward November. It is the kind of sleepy, off-year election that keeps voters home.

The usual explanations for the embarrassingly low turnout that can be expected next month fall into two broad categories. The first is complacency -- a sense that things are going so well there's no need to throw the bums out. The second is cynicism -- a sense that politics is so bad that voting won't change a thing.

But a third explanation emerges from an analysis of new women voters who voted in the 1996 presidential election after sitting out the elections of 1992 and 1994: We still haven't torn down enough barriers to electoral participation.

And many of the old institutional obstacles have gotten worse over time, as more families struggle through weekdays of two jobs, two commutes and too-trying child-care arrangements.

The Women's Vote Project, a nonpartisan organization that worked last year to register new women voters and encourage registered sometime-voters to cast ballots, studied the 100,000 so women they'd targeted to register and get to the polls.

Their results are worth heeding, more for their common sense than their sensationalism.

The dominant reason these women found voting intimidating is that, even in this age of information overload, they feared they didn't have enough neutral, nonpartisan information to make the right choice.

"They'd rather not vote than make a mistake," said pollster Celinda Lake, whose firm conducted the survey and focus groups. This sense of personal inadequacy (typical among women, but not among similarly confused men, Ms. Lake says) was acute in states offering public referendums.

More than two-thirds of the women said getting nonpartisan voting information would make a difference in whether they would go and vote.

Major deterrent

But then, once they are ready to cast a ballot, it must be made easier. The time and effort it takes to vote is a major deterrent, especially for those who dreaded lining up a baby-sitter for yet another slice of the day or waiting in line with squirming children. Their own suggested alternatives -- mail-in ballots and Saturday voting -- make sense.

Why not? There is something archaic about balloting on a workday in a library or a school cafeteria, at creaky old machines that are museum pieces. It's a setup that just doesn't work for people who must time the day-care pickup down to the split-second and stop to pick up groceries before heading home. With banking, shopping and bill-paying done by mail, phone or computer, why not voting?

The power structure will raise the usual complaints, just as it did about the effort to expand the electorate by allowing people to register at motor vehicles offices.

Mail-in or computer balloting will increase fraud, the politicians inevitably argue. But if our money is secure in electronic circuits that respond to a PIN number, there surely is a way to make our votes as safe.

What politicians really mean when they resist changing voting methods to meet the demands of contemporary life is that they fear changes may expand the number of people who vote in ways they can't predict. It is better, for them, to keep the pool small and predictable, the better to learn voters' habits and exploit them.

Eventually, even the voting machine will fall victim to the exigencies of the 21st century. Meanwhile, those who blame the national humiliation of low turnout on apathy or cynicism must recognize the defenders of the status quo as culpable, too.

Marie Cocco is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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