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Voting for Democracy
Published on Friday, September 20, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Voting for Democracy
by Derrick Z. Jackson

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 to coercion.

''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 voters.

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


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