The last day of the election season, I am seized with the same anxieties that so many people are. But we should also take note of some major positives in this election, which are already true, regardless of Tuesday's outcome. They confound some of the accepted critiques of our democracy and create a base to build on for the future.
The first and most important is that we are headed toward reversing -- perhaps in a really big way -- the 30-year decline in voter participation that set in after Vietnam and Watergate. A staple of pessimistic analysis of our democracy has been that people just don't care, so they don't bother to vote. Well, not this year. A CBS poll of likely voters taken Sunday indicated that 25 percent have already voted, and estimates of turnout as high as 75 percent in Florida and 80 percent in Connecticut have already been made. The imagery of people waiting in line to vote, undeterred, four days out, is striking and important. The Federal Election Commission estimates that in 2000, roughly 105 million people voted. The total this year could be 110 million, 115 million, or even 120 million. Clearly an enormous amount of credit goes to the voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts undertaken by the parties, the “527s,” and the nonpartisan grass-roots organizations.
A critical subset of this increase is among youth. For the last four years, pundits have universally noted that while young people are not apathetic, as evidenced by large amounts of volunteerism, they did not connect their idealism to participation in the political process. Again, not this year. The politicization of hip-hop, the serious commitment of airtime by youth-oriented cultural outlets, the amount of activism on campus, and the level of Internet activism all indicate a substantial re-engagement by youth in our political process, and Tuesday's final figures will record this important shift.
Secondly, there is a very clear choice, and a renewed understanding that the choices made in our political system matter to our lives. Another part of the pessimistic critique of our democracy has been that because of the dominance of big money, the move of the Democrats to the center, and the callowness of politics in general, people don't see any real choices to be made or real reasons to vote. Once again, not this year. As jobs and health-care coverage have disappeared, as the costs of necessities and families' debt burdens have continued to rise, and as lives and families have been shattered by the war in Iraq, it has become clear that there is a lot more than a dime's worth of difference after all.
Another huge difference this year is the attention that the process itself has gotten, not just from the protagonists but from the media as well. Complacency about the process itself is no more. Conditions and activities that violated our democratic process in 2000, like creaky machinery, sloppy voting lists, untrained poll workers, and purging and intimidation of new registrants, particularly from communities of color, flew under the radar until it was too late. Not this year. Florida's felon purge is a case in point. While it succeeded under cover of darkness in 2000, this year the same effort was met by lawsuits for transparency from many, including CNN. A review that showed the purge's enormous flaws resulted in its abandonment by Governor Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris' successor, Secretary of State Glenda Hood. And in Ohio, efforts by the GOP to challenge new voters have been met with strenuous early resistance, and as of Monday morning, a judicial ruling that partisan challengers will not be allowed in polling places.
There is much that has been ugly about this year's campaign, and a huge amount to be feared in Tuesday's finale. So many things can go awfully wrong, and a substantial reform agenda awaits. But a lot of things have already gone right. The real legacy, not only of this year's election but also of the 2000 election, has not been written. The 2004 election may yet be mired in confusion and controversy at the polls, legal wrangling for weeks afterward, and an outcome whose validity is again questioned. If that happens, 2000 may mark the year our election system began its descent into disrepair and illegitimacy. But if this year sees a big increase in participation, especially by young people and people long left out of our political system, and if a real choice is made about the direction of our country, and if the vigilance about the process helps protect the integrity of tomorrow's vote, the legacy of 2000 will have been a huge wake-up call for which we will be grateful for a long time. We should take note of what has changed, appreciate it, and use it to build to the future.
Miles S. Rapoport is president of Demos, a national research and advocacy organization.
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