Taking the time to actually vote

In an era when we are too lazy to get out of our cars to get a $3 cup of coffee at Starbucks, why should we have to get out of our jammies to vote for president? California elections officials, always catering to apathetic voters, agree and have decided that going to the polls is so last century. Now they’re pushing us to vote by mail so we won’t be inconvenienced by participating in our democracy.

So let me get this straight. We’ll stand in line at the mall the day after Christmas to get a bargain, but we won’t stand in line to vote for a president who can send our children to war or tax us out of our homes?

Quite frankly, we are a bunch of big babies, hardly worthy of this democracy the Greatest Generation saved for us. And our elections officials are enablers, coaxing us to vote in elections in which our participation is a basic responsibility of citizenship.

I take a hard line on voting. I think that if voters miss two elections in a row, they should have to take a citizenship test to regain their full rights as Americans. Otherwise, they stay on citizen probation, and will be the first voted off the island when the nation gets too crowded.

I understand that I’m on the fringe when it comes to voting. But I still don’t have to like the creative things that elections officials do to encourage people to register to vote and then actually cast ballots when the election rolls around.

They’ve gone to college basketball games and wrestling matches to encourage voter registration. They spend half their time educating people on how to vote.

Here’s a secret: It isn’t that difficult. And if you can’t figure it out, you shouldn’t be voting anyway.

My thoughts aside, elections officials are on a campaign to get people to vote by mail so they won’t have to go to their neighborhood schools, fire stations or churches to vote in person.

So beginning Monday, you can start voting by mail for the Feb. 5 primary election. In Fresno County, most of us now vote by mail. It’s a trend that’s been increasing every election.

In the June 2006 primary election, 57.4 percent of voters cast ballots by mail. One day, we may close the polling places altogether.

Oh, what a glorious day it will be for citizens who don’t care about their government. Maybe then they will be able to go to Starbucks and vote for president while getting their coffee.

I may be getting a little ahead of myself. Secretary of State Debra Bowen, California’s chief elections officer, isn’t ready to have an “American Idol”-type voting system. But she’s sure that in a generation or so, technology will dramatically change the way elections are conducted.

“I can’t imagine that high-school students of today, who text-message all day in class, won’t come up with more convenient ways of voting in the future,” Bowen said.

But right now, voting by mail is the alternative to going to the polls on Election Day. Voters get their ballots in the mail early, vote when it is convenient and then mail them back to the elections office in their counties. The ballots just have to arrive by Election Day.

Bowen says voters can have it both ways: They can still go to the polls on Election Day or they can take their time and vote by mail.

In the interest of experimentation, I’m going to vote by mail this year. Going to the polls is much more interesting, but I suppose I shouldn’t complain about voting by mail unless I try it at least once.

State officials have even changed the name of the process this year. It was called “absentee voting” and is now officially referred to as “voting by mail.”

The system will have a big impact on candidates as more and more people opt for mail-in ballots. If half the electorate is voting early, the candidates must adjust their advertising and campaigning to allow as many voters as possible to hear their message.

Tom Holyoke, an assistant professor of political science at Fresno State, says voting by mail should result in more people voting. Young voters who go to school and work and poorer people who must work two jobs may be attracted to voting by mail, he said.

A higher turnout is a good thing, Holyoke said, although it also may increase participation by voters who don’t know the issues on the ballot.

“You are more likely to have people participating who are not especially committed to the electoral process. This is a problem in the sense that they are less likely to be informed. This, in turn, may have ramifications for more obscure decisions, such as voting on ballot initiatives that are hard to read.”

There are a lot of problems with our political process, and making it easier to vote won’t solve them. Until voters know as much about the presidential candidates as they do about “American Idol” or how “Dancing with the Stars” contestants performed, our democracy is going to be very troubled.

(Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee’s editorial page editor. E-mail him at jboren(at)fresnobee.com.)

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