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Do We Really Think, “Why Bother”?

We’re about to embark on a hallowed mission that far too many of us appear to fail to take seriously. That mission is to vote next Tuesday, November 6, in the state and county elections.

According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, based in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy; just 59 percent of DC-Virginia-Maryland Metro-area voters over the age of 30 turned out to vote in the 2006 midterm elections. Further, a dismal 33 percent of voters 18-29 bothered to show up for what was, arguably, the most important national election in recent times.

With such issues at stake as U.S-backed torture, war, privacy in communications and the right to challenge one’s accusers when arrested by the federal government, less than six out of ten of us adults eligible to vote took the trouble to get to the polls. And, similarly, only one in three young people felt so moved to act. But am I unfairly tagging those who don’t make it to the polls?

Next Tuesday the issues will be more parochial, but no less important in our representative democracy. For we’ll be choosing the persons who will stand to defend our interests, consistent with the Constitution, while holding the offices of School Board and County Board, as well as the County Treasurer, Commonwealth’s Attorney (sometimes called the “D.A.” in television dramas), Commissioner of Revenue, Sheriff, and those who will represent us in the state Senate and House of Delegates in Richmond.

You know, we’re a fortunate lot here in Arlington. We’ve got this election coming up, and there’s not the slightest hint that anyone will try to ‘suppress’ your vote.

No behind-the-scenes activity by County government to give an electoral advantage to one candidate over the other. No confusing ‘butterfly’ ballots, no troopers hanging around schools and community centers to frighten less fortunate members of our community from visiting the polls, as was done in Florida in the tainted 2000 election. No deliberate shortage of voting machines — as was concocted by the GOP secretary of state in the 2004 swing state of Ohio — bringing long and time-consuming lines to folks who had to get to work in dense inner city precincts.

For a nation that crows over the fair and unfettered ‘purple thumb’ elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, what some cynical politicians have done to twist outcomes of elections in our democracy has become sinful, if not criminal.

Maybe that plays a role in turnout, do you think?

We don’t set aside an easily accessible day for voting, so that as many citizens as possible can vote. No, our ‘leaders’ have allowed the outdated ‘first Tuesday after the first Monday in November’ to be the not-to-be-tampered-with date for elections. And, unlike other elections that we so saintfully monitor in developing democracies, our election overseers in the U.S. choose a workday, in the middle of the week, as voting day; with polls open from the ridiculous 6am to 7pm timeframe.

Consequently, you have a mad rush at 6am for before-work voters who have to sneak in a time to vote amidst the morning chores of breakfast for the kids, school rides, early work deadlines, and stalled traffic. If the line’s too long or time is too tight, a potential voter can try to get back to the polling place by leaving early from work, if that’s possible, and racing (in creeping traffic?) to the election judge’s line before the end-of-polling lockup.

If you could stop by your neighborhood precinct station one election day and observe what the activity is like between, say, 10am and 4pm, you’d likely see some retirees and stay-at-home spouses trickle through the door, while poll workers would try to deal with the emptiness of the daytime hours.

Our across-the-river leaders crow about Iraq/Afghanistan voter participation in the 80 to 90 percent range, while here in the states politicians connive and maneuver to actually suppress the votes of minorities, who might be inclined to vote for the other party.

In past eras it might have been the likes of Tammany Hall and the Daley Machine that worked to ‘rig’ elections. These days we’ve watched, helplessly, while police and voting machine allocation, not to mention non-tamper-proof voting apparatuses, have been used to hold back what might have been Democratic votes.

The sick minds who have manufactured these scenarios work in the skulls of such notorious ‘win-at-any-cost’ perpetrators as Karl Rove, Katherine Harris, Lee Atwater (whose deathbed conversion admitted and asked forgiveness for his electoral sins) and Tom DeLay.

We in Virginia can take a step away from these evil and barely legal steps — designed to stop some segments of the population from voting — by declaring Election Day a state holiday, on which employers of every person in every occupation shall be required to give a free paid holiday so their workers can vote. And if you are an ‘essential’ employee who has to work to keep the electricity, traffic and water flowing, then your employer must provide absentee ballots and expedited presentation of those ballots to election authorities.

Why not? Oregon has made postcard voting work, cutting out the trip to the polls altogether. If we’re not ready for a step of that magnitude yet, at least our legislators and governor can take the next best step and demonstrate the absolute necessity of voting by making Election Day a paid state holiday. We’d be showing the federal government, just a stone’s throw away, that it can work; and maybe Congress will get the idea that the Nation deserves no less for our national elections.

So, what about it, Richmond? Is the birthplace of this nation’s once-enviable democracy ready to make the electoral process as easy for us as Washington has made it for segments of the Middle East? Think how uplifting that could be for people who feel marginalized in our showcase democracy. And maybe that Election Day turnout will show how many of us really do care.

Nick Penning (www.nickpenning.com) is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” which originated in March 1989, appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

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