AMERICANS ARE patriotic blowhards compared with the people of Kashmir in the
Himalayas. Their region, ruled by mostly Hindu India but bitterly claimed by Islamic
Pakistan, has lost 35,000 people to political violence in 13 years. In the last
month and a half, more than 460 people, including candidates and political activists,
have been killed in the campaigning leading up to Assembly elections.
In the face of terrorism and separatist boycotts of the elections, 47 percent
of Kashmiris turned out to vote in the first round of balloting this week. Regardless
of whether Kashmir should belong to India or Pakistan, it was a stirring commitment
to democracy. There were scattered claims of Indian soldiers forcing people to
vote, but so far news accounts do not indicate that the general turnout was due
''Voters' remarkable grit and determination in yesterday's polls have proved
hollow the claims of Pakistan that Kashmiris were averse and indifferent to elections,''
said Lal Gupta, India's junior defense minister. The Times of India, a Hindu newspaper,
said voters ''braved incessant gunfire and dire death threats ... signaling their
faith in the democratic process.''
As Kashmiris signal their faith, Americans just signify. Massachusetts had
a gubernatorial primary, and only 28 percent of the registered voters showed up.
New York State had a gubernatorial primary and only 11.5 percent of registered
Democrats showed up. Ohio's primaries brought out only 19 percent. Statewide elections
in North Carolina, Arizona, and Wisconsin brought out only 20 percent of registered
New Hampshire had record participation in its Republican primary, which will
probably result in a turnout of about a third of its registered voters. Nevada
had a similar percentage and in Washington, D.C., 35 percent of Democrats voted
for mayor. But none of that approaches the 47 percent of Kashmir.
In Georgia, only 8 or 9 percent of registered voters came out, a percentage
so low that Lynne Warren of Morrow told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ''I
was watching the news and seeing how we could lose our freedoms. Even though I
was sick, I felt I needed to vote.''
The sickening slobs we've become are most symbolized by Governor John Rowland
of Connecticut. Rowland failed to vote in a Republican congressional primary.
Rowland was not alone; 95 percent of Republicans in the state's 1st Congressional
District also did not vote.
Rowland was too busy at ribbon cuttings and Sept. 11 events to get to a ballot
box. ''No one understands or appreciates the right to vote more than him,'' said
Rowland aide Chris Cooper. That brought this quip from Roy Occhiogrosso, the campaign
manager for Rowland's Democratic challenger in November, Bill Curry: ''You can
bet he hasn't missed a fund-raiser in eight years.''
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush declared that
''freedom and democracy are under attack.'' Bush said of the terrorists, ''They
hate what we see right here in this chamber - a democratically elected government.
... They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our
freedom to vote.''
A year later we still hate voting. Our turnouts, sinking below 20 percent in
the primaries and rising to only 50 percent in presidential elections, is nothing
compared with elections elsewhere in the world this year. Elections in Macedonia
brought out 70 percent of the voters. Slovakia is anticipating a 70 percent turnout
this weekend. Lesotho, France, and the Netherlands had respective turnouts of
68, 80, and 79 percent. In Switzerland, a vote to join the United Nations brought
out 58 percent of the voters.
In Britain, political scientists are wringing their hands over creeping cynicism
as participation in the general elections dropped from 72 percent in 1997 to under
60 percent last year. This year, Sweden had a turnout of 79 percent, which was
stunning, because the average turnout since 1945 had been 87 percent. Peter Esiasson
of Gothenburg University said, ''It looks bad for Swedish democracy.''
If 79 percent is bad for Swedish democracy, then Americans have little right
to shine democracy's beacon, especially when a governor does not vote, when a
voter gets off a sickbed because fellow voters are AWOL, and when the vast majority
of Americans will sit for hours watching sitcoms, soap operas, and football but
cannot find a few minutes between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. to find their polling place.
As Kashmiris ignored their fears of whizzing bullets, Americans whizzed by the
voting booth. It is as if we need a gun to our heads to exercise democracy.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company