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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Convenience voting sacrifices its urgency

Published:   |   Updated: August 29, 2014 at 05:48 AM

We knew this day would come eventually, and there might even be some among us who celebrate its arrival. But for your dyed-in-the-wool, mossback, you-just-couldn’t-leave-well-enough-alone traditionalists, what happened Tuesday is more worthy of black armbands than fireworks and marching bands.

Tuesday, some might have noticed, was Election Day. More accurately, it was the day at the end of the Summer Election Season, which began when Florida’s elections supervisors mailed “absentee” ballots way, way back on July 12. I say “absentee” because voters no longer have to submit a verifiable excuse for why they can’t get to the polls, our reform-minded Legislature having done away with that onerous burden to exercising one’s franchise a while back.

Things really got rolling — using the broadest possible definition — with the Aug. 16 opening of early voting locations. Eight days! No waiting! Come as you are!

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Well. All this civic commotion that sometimes is described, quaintly, as the spine supporting America’s body politic attracted, statewide, 17.6 percent of eligible voters. Fewer than one in five. In Pasco it was 14.9 percent. Hillsborough mustered 15.8 percent. Pinellas, ever the curve-breaker, whipped up almost 24 percent.

One quick take. Look around the lunch counter, the office or the drivers waiting out the red light. Did you vote? Chances are you are surrounded by people who didn’t.

This is not meant as indictment of, or even a robust complaint about, your fellow citizens who practiced precinct-avoidance. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if people don’t want to come to the polls, you can’t stop them. Nor do I particularly want to. My position, selfish and unwavering, is this: Because the influence my ballot commands is inversely proportional to the election turnout, I will never encourage anyone to vote simply for the sake of bolstering turnout.

If Election Season came and went and mine was the only ballot duly bubbled and fed through the DS200 optical scanner, my sorrow over the demise of truly representative government would be salved by the knowledge that I would get precisely the government I prefer. (Think about that the next time you consider blowing off Election Season.)

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Anyway, about the day of rueful inevitability mentioned at the top. For the first time since Florida joined the parade of reactionaries queuing up behind the notion that motor-voter registration combined with early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots would lead to participation by an electorate that is broader, deeper and significantly more reflective of the public’s will, fewer votes were cast on Election Day — fast becoming an anachronism — than were cast early or by mail.

A fair argument can be made that this is not such a bad turn of events. In virtually any human endeavor, from school projects to filing income taxes to building a national healthcare website, putting off complex tasks until the deadline can lead to all sorts of problems. The same probably can be said about holding elections.

But if there are no particularly good reasons against getting an early start on projects, tax preparation and the like, the same cannot be said for sacrificing Election Day — once a date set apart for the exercise of America’s civic religion — to expedience. Election Day, once a boisterous, patriotic coming-together event that commanded our focus like the run-up to Christmas, Thanksgiving, Independence Day and Super Bowl Sunday combined, is a sort-of season, a window of vague opportunity.

Casting a ballot has become an I’ll-get-around-to-it chore, like running a convenience store errand: something you do in your spare time, and when you are unlikely to stand in a line with anybody you know. Worse, we haven’t expanded the electorate in any appreciable manner; early and no-excuse absentee voting (still not practiced in 14 states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and South Carolina) have simply cannibalized the ballots of the usual suspects.

There are lots of reasons specific to the election just past to explain the anemic turnout, but there’s also this: Government’s emphasis on making voting convenient has succeeded primarily in making it less urgent, interesting and compelling. Nice work.

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