Washington And now we come to that wonderful moment in the election year when all eyes turn to the ballot box and find it half empty.
This year special attention is going to that near oxymoron, the youth vote. In 1996, only 28 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted. This year, they may underdo themselves.
Questions about young voters have less to do with Gore and Bush than with chickens and eggs. Which came first?
Chicken and Egg One. Do young Americans not vote because the candidates ignore them, or do candidates ignore them because they don't vote? It's no coincidence that the issues being raised are Social Security and prescription drugs. Who's chicken?
Chicken and Egg Two. Do young voters refuse to choose because they don't know enough, or do they not learn more because they have no intention of voting? A disheartening MTV poll showed that a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds couldn't name both presidential candidates and 70 percent couldn't name the veeps. Who laid the egg?
Chicken and Egg Three. Are they apathetic because they are alienated from politics, or alienated because they are apathetic? College students volunteer and work for change one-on-one and in the private sector, but not en masse or in politics. Anyone for an omelet?
Now, I am not into breaking eggs, wringing chicken necks or bashing youth, although some of the reasons coming from Generation-Y-Vote are enough to turn my roots gray. Try these two from North Carolina students: "It doesn't relate to me" and "I think they're both crackheads." The real problem is how to break what one pollster called a "cycle of mutual neglect."
Even groups targeting the problem, like Rock the Vote have you seen their tag line, "Piss off a Politician. Vote."? can't seem to slow the downward spiral. Maybe you can lead a young person to register at the World Wrestling Federation theme restaurant in Times Square, but you can't make him vote.
There are all kinds of theories about the incredible shrinking voter. Curtis Gans at the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate does a six-minute rap on the erosion of big issues like Vietnam or civil rights, on political disillusionment from Nixon to Clinton, on a breakdown in community and the proliferation of media. The end result, he says, is that voting has become the specialty of policy junkies and ideological zealots.
Tom Patterson of the Vanishing Voter Project adds that an interest in news and politics go together. He is looking at what happens at home. The "pre-cable" generation grew up with the evening news on television and around the dinner table. The post-cable generation of under-30s "hasn't gotten the news habit." Unless you follow what's going on, he says, "politics is like going to a football game for the first time if you are European."
Older voters, Gans says, are "the last upholders of the religion of civic duty." Civic duty? Consider the recent death notice of Rhode Island great-grandmother Mary Hallowell: 'In lieu of flowers, please vote for Al Gore."'
In any case, a 65-year-old American is more than twice as likely to vote as a 25-year-old. There's no quick fix for a massive change unless there's some national disaster. No one wants that kind of wake-up call.
But if the researchers are right, if politics was a family affair, and if, among other things, the older generation has failed to pass on the civic religion, maybe there's another way to intervene in this spiral of mutual neglect.
If older Americans are twice as likely to vote as young, you do the math. A lot of those nonvoters are the adult children of voters. Remember Take Your Daughter to Work Day? What about Take Your Daughter or Son to the Polls Day? Take anyone's son or daughter. Take anyone over 18.
This may sound like some hopelessly retro Frank Capra movie. It's more sophisticated to sit around talking about the chicken and the egg of disconnection. But one of the things we know is that voting is a habit. Anyone who votes a couple of times will keep doing it. They'll get involved. Anyone who skips the first couple of national cycles probably won't ever get to the polls.
In this civic religion, the one who never gets to the booth is the rotten egg.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.