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Nonvoters: deciding not to decide

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Between now and November, political campaigns will spend millions of dollars. They'll consume thousands of hours of television time. They'll ink tons of newsprint. And in the end, if 1988 is like 1984, nearly 82 million eligible Americans won't vote. That's right: 82 million people. The whole population of Mexico. All of Britain and Canada combined.

Why this self-disenfranchisement, this voluntary surrender of a privilege that in so many nations is only a fervent hope?

The answers are legion. In part, they have to do with barriers that make voting difficult. The first is registration. Unlike many other nations, the United States has no government policy of seeking out and registering citizens. So registration must be self-initiated. The process is not complex. But it usually involves coming face to face with a bureaucracy - something Americans would rather not do.

The second barrier is voting itself. Some countries vote on Sundays. One can argue, of course, about violating the Sabbath - although in a nation where shopping malls are increasingly open on Sundays the argument sounds hollow. Americans vote on weekdays - either taking time away from work or rushing home before the polls close. Not easy for today's commuters.

The third barrier is the thoroughly human desire to avoid situations that show up one's ignorance. I know many people who pay diligent attention to national and international affairs. Yet the ballot they face may contain candidates and local issues they've never heard of - some of the latter worded so slyly that ``no'' means ``yes.'' Reading a local ballot, in fact, one can easily conclude that government is the private preserve of insiders - and that the rest of us are mere interlopers.

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