LETTER FROM MEMPHIS 

It's not the economy, stupid; it's the electorate...

SPANISH LESSON A tragic week in Spain came to an end Sunday with the resounding defeat at the polls of Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party, and his replacement as prime minister by the Socialist Worker's Party leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. A phenomenal 77% of registered Spanish voters turned out in the aftermath of the Madrid outrage, directly rebuking Aznar for supporting the Bush Administration's Iraq invasion a year ago this month. Despite the horror of the past week, Spain can legitimately call itself one of the world's great democracies. What a pity that the United States of America -- despite all of our current government’s flag-waving and patriotic posturing -- cannot do the same. Why not, you say? Before you choke on your apple pie, remember that the last time we had a 77% voter turnout in a national election, Babe Ruth was still in pinstripes. For decades, our country's levels of voter turnout have been abysmal, well below international averages. When it comes to participatory democracy, we’re lower than pond scum. Seriously. Outside our own borders, everybody knows what charlatans we are in this regard. Only rarely does an American election attract the attention of even half of our registered voters. Far more common are state and municipal elections decided by mere fractions of the potential electorate. We had just such a lame excuse for an election right here in Memphis last December 16th, a primary for a vacancy in the Tennessee State House of Representatives. The event was so popular that it drew the attention of just over 5% of registered Democratic voters; in this case, less people than show up at a medium-sized Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon. The victor that day, Beverly Marrero (an excellent candidate, by the way) won the right to run for the seat in a heavily-Democratic district with -- are you ready? -- 750 votes out of the total 1,235 ballots cast. Her opponent got a mere 485 votes, and was thus soundly thrashed. It’s a bit self-serving to say this, but, honestly, a good party at the Flyer‘s offices -- we are somewhat famous for these, truth be told -- could have made all the difference in this “election.” That, my friends, is an extremely frightening thought. Ms. Marrero is now a legislator in Nashville, representing the state’s 85th district, elected to her office by a tiny sliver of the total electorate. No offense to Beverly, who, I am sure, will represent her district well, but as Lee Iaccoca might say, is this any way to run a government? In 2000, the last time we had a chance to elect a new president, 63.8% of America's registered voters participated. That sounds more reasonable, yes? But keep in mind that that figure doesn't include the tens of millions of our fellow Americans who have never -- not once ever in their lifetimes -- bothered registering to vote. The sad truth is that less than half of all adult Americans actually voted in the 2000 Presidential elections, an election which was hotly contested, an election for which turnout was higher than in 1996. For us, it was a statistical victory; for truly democratic countries like Brazil or New Zealand, it would have been a national disgrace. This is reality: No other democratic country in the developed word treats the concept of elections as flippantly as we do. We are truly special: almost every government we ever elect, at every level, is a minority government. Over half of us are mere sheep, being led wherever the government the rest of us chooses. When it comes to getting out and voting, half of us would rather have a Gatorade. Just how bad are we? Well, just using the registered-voter figure, our country's 63.8% turnout in 2000 was good enough for 148th place on the chart of 200 national elections held in democracies around the world over the past decade. (You can check all this data out, and more, at www.nationmaster.com.) Compare our performance to countries like Australia (95.4% turnout in their 2001 elections) and Belgium (90.6% in 1999), and you'll quickly realize that we perennially win the gold-medal competition in the Olympic voter-apathy category. As large a threat as “terrorism” poses to our democracy, it is a mere bagatelle, when compared to the enormous danger we pose to ourselves by countenancing an electorate that wants nothing to do with electing. So what should we do, now especially, when we have a critical Presidential election just over the horizon? Bear with me a moment, and ask yourself the same question I asked myself last Sunday, after seeing how many Spaniards went to the polls to determine their country’s future. What's to prevent George W. Bush and John Kerry, under the auspices of an organization like the League of Women Voters, from getting personally involved in addressing this problem? What's to keep Bush and Kerry from STANDING TOGETHER in a series of television ads, campaigning together for what’s truly important: encouraging Americans to get out and vote in November? Answer: Absolutely nothing. I feel certain the money could be found to make and screen these commercials, taking nary a dollar from either candidate's war chest. Consider this potential sixty-second script, written, of course, by a complete PR amateur, yours truly:
Kerry: Mr. President, it's a national disgrace... Bush: Senator, I couldn't agree with you more. It's something I lay awake at night thinking about... Kerry: Me, too. Makes me wonder sometimes why we bother, at allÉ Bush: Yep. We've gotta put a stop to it... Kerry: Or a start. Bush (turning to camera): You know, the Senator and I will be competing in the months ahead for the Presidency of this great country... Kerry: And it'll be up to you to make the pivotal decision as to which of us should serve in our nation's highest office these next four years... Bush: That's a big decision, but it's not ours to make... Kerry: Nope... Bush and Kerry, in unison: It's yours... Bush: Our country has one of the democratic world's lowest voter turnout percentages... Kerry: And that's an embarrassment to both of us, and should be for all Americans... Bush: So this November 9th, do the right thing... Kerry (camera on Bush): Vote for him, if you prefer his policiesÉ Bush (camera on Kerry): Or if you prefer, vote for him. Kerry: But whatever you do... Bush: Don't stay home. Kerry: Get out and vote... Bush: The future of America is in your hands... Kerry and Bush (in unison): Not ours.....
Think about it. The impact of such a joint get-out-the-vote campaign might well be extraordinary; it could actually make voting “cool.” At the very least, the political talk shows would have grist for their mills, for days on ends. The talking heads would talk, the magazines would have dynamite covers, the buzz would get buzzing. And we Americans would send an unmistakable message to the rest of the world: we as a nation intend to do more than pay lip-service to the ideals that we keep talking about, ad nauseum, to everyone else. I would hope that both President Bush and Senator Kerry could embrace this idea wholeheartedly. Actually, they’d be fools not to; if either of them refused, the other could harvest massive quantities of political hay, simply by contrasting his own willingness to get out the vote with his opponent's reluctance to do so. But all this isn’t about political advantage; it’s about dry rot in our body politic. It’s time to address the problem, before it’s too late. Let’s make America a real democracy, instead of the hollow shell that passes for reality today. (Kenneth Neill is CEO of Contemporary Media Inc., the parent company of The Memphis Flyer.)

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