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Americans and their franchise

AT this point in the American political season, it is customary for newspaper editorial pages to plead urgently with their readers to be sure to vote on election day. We did it Oct. 21, and now we'll do it again: Please vote on Tuesday. Don't let them settle the question without you. (If you're reading this page, though, it's likely you're already planning to head to the polls; newspaper readership has been found to be the best predictor of voting.)

The urgings to civic-mindedness are often accompanied by a lament over how few people do exercise their franchise. Unquestionably, most other Western democracies have a higher voter turnout than the United States, and we devoutly wish Americans did better. But some perspective is needed.

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For one thing, Americans do vote a lot: for president and Congress, for governor, for mayor, for sheriff, for judges, in some places, even for coroner. These other races are often in ``off'' presidential years, and that means extra treks to the polls. Research indicates that in other countries, voter turnout falls off as the number of elections increases. It may be the same too-small group of voters choosing a president and then coming back the next year to choose a mayor, while nonvoters stay away from both contests. But in terms of total citizen-trips to the polls, the US does all right.

For another thing, the United States is a well-established democracy; its system of government enjoys a broad base of public support. Its mainstream political candidates are all within a certain relatively narrow ideological spectrum. It is not a put-down of the two presidential candidates to say that the differences between them are not so vast as to inspire desperate mass efforts to forestall victory by one or the other.

But does this mean that staying away from the polls is a perverse sign of voter satisfaction? And if so, does that suggest that the turnout at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder means the people there are most satisfied of all? Hardly.

It may be most instructive to see education levels, not income levels, as better indicators of likelihood to vote. Of course, education and income are related. But two people of equal education and unequal income are equally likely to vote; whereas of two people of the same income and different education, the better educated is much likelier to vote.

Not that a college diploma necessarily helps its owner understand the arcana of specific issues; rather, educated citizens are used to considering abstract issues and puzzling through a ballot that is, after all, not unlike an exam paper.

This ability to deal with what we might call ``politics in the abstract'' has become more important over the years. Nowadays, local jurisdictions are full of newcomers who haven't figured out the cast of political characters and aren't yet attuned to local issues. Fewer people identify automatically with one party or the other on the basis of religion or ethnicity. And with the ascendancy of national over local politics, the choices that matter most must be made largely on the basis of information from the mass media rather than personal contact.

Efforts to get out the vote - everything from registration reforms to free rides to the polling places - are of course welcome. But in the end, the decision whether to vote is as individual as the choice for whom to vote.

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