- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

Election Day arrives tomorrow, and when large numbers of qualified Americans fail to vote, you'll be told it's the politicians who are guilty that they are keeping people from the polls by their disreputable behavior.
I beg to differ. People fail to vote mainly because they are lousy citizens. It's their disreputable behavior that's at fault.
After all, if the politicians are crummy, voting is a way to address that. Refusing to vote because you don't like the politicians is like refusing to wash the dishes because they are dirty. Throw the bums out. It's a time-honored, American tradition.
The nonvoters and those who blame everyone but them for this punishment they inflict on this land's hard-won democracy have several responses to the argument I just made.
What if all the candidates in a race are crooked or worse, they ask. Or suppose both are acceptable but there's not "a dime's worth of difference" between them, as has been alleged about presidential and other candidates in the past?
There are distinctions. There are always distinctions. They may not be large, but they can be located. A sense of proportion is needed. Some misdeeds are graver than others. Some virtues are more important than others. Some talents count for a lot in politics, and others do not. Judgments have to be made in accordance with the voter's own principles and understandings. The fact that making a judgment is difficult is not a good argument against making it at all.
It does not bother me that the philosophical differences between candidates are not usually huge. I count it a blessing that most of our politicians are essentially believers in the rule of law, the Bill of Rights, private property, a free enterprise economy, equality under the law and self-governance through representative bodies.
A single vote just won't make any difference one way or the other, some say, adding that the polls sometimes make it clear their view is bound to lose.
While single votes do sometimes win elections, they usually do not. But giving up without a fight a trip to the polling place is the surest way there is of losing; if a great many people avoid that trip, the practice can clearly have a pronounced effect on who wins and who does not. A vote also does more than decide who wins. It makes a statement that gets studied and may have political consequences down the road, and it helps sustain a process vital to our political system.
Obviously, the view of any particular voter might not carry the day, but that's the way of democracy, and the voter is not then without hope. There will be more elections to come, and plenty of opportunities to make arguments in all sorts of public forums. Those who do not consider themselves gifted with the omniscience of God, ought also to consider the possibility that on at least some occasions it might be less than tragic that their view was defeated.
Getting to the polls is very difficult for some people.
No, it's not. For the average person, voting is no more difficult than going to the grocery store. Laws make sure people can get time off from work to vote if necessary, and there are absentee ballots for the physically incapacitated.
People don't vote because of negative campaigning.
I am one of those who thinks negative campaigning a good thing so long as it confines itself to relevant issues and is honest. People need to be informed of the questionable policy positions and shortcomings of those seeking public office that's a major value of campaigns. If an ad is a lie, there is a good answer: Vote against the candidate doing the lying. Figuring out the lies is not so difficult for those who read newspapers regularly and listen to what candidates say to defend themselves.
Those who believe voters are inevitably fooled by the politicians who spend the most on advertising have not taken account of the big spenders who have lost. While fooled occasionally, the American people generally spot the frauds.
People have a right not to vote.
Yes, they do. But to the extent that they exercise that right, they put their other rights in jeopardy. The maintaining of our way of life depends on people understanding the responsibilities of citizenship, which include voting, although only after first getting informed. When we the people do not do that, and do not instruct new citizens about this responsibility or do not teach our children about it in our homes and schools, we have no one to blame but ourselves for what happens next.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.


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