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Commentary: Voter Turnout

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Voter turnout is expected to be less than 50 percent for the U.S. Senate election in New Jersey on Tuesday. But if you're so disgusted with the choices that you're inclined to abstain, WNYC's Brian Lehrer says you may be missing the point.

It's easy to forget about the importance of an election when the campaigns themselves work so hard to turn you off. Consider these moments from Wednesday night's debate when Lautenberg and then Forrester got to ask each other questions

[Audio from debate]

They used their questions to smear each other. By the end, I as a citizen and a viewer felt like I had been slimed by both of them.

It's not that there aren't legitimate issues in there somewhere. Forrester has gotten rich off his pharmaceutical benefits firm. His tax return might reveal something relevant about his interest in the high price of prescription drugs.

And it is, of course, legitimate to debate taxes on social security benefits and the sanctity of the trust fund.

But the tone of both questions implied something dirty about the other guy - ignoring the facts that Lautenberg's social security votes were made in the face of daunting challenges to the system . And that Forrester has released all the personal financial information required by law.

Maybe New Jersey voters, of all people, have good reason to suspect their political candidates - can you say Torricelli? Treffinger? Gibson?

But the smearing takes place for a reason. The truly cynical goal is not so much to flip voters from one candidate to the other - that's not considered very likely in this race -- but rather to dissuade casual supporters of the other guy from voting at all.

But we get disenfranchised when we get disgusted enough to stay home.


So before you decide to abstain, please indulge me a little pep talk:

We're at a turning point in our nation's history, with enormous implications for America's direction riding on which man wins. Control of the Senate is at stake. That means how we fight terrorism is at stake. How we fight corporate fraud is at stake. How we are taxed is at stake. How social security and Medicare are reformed are at stake. Control of the Supreme Court is at stake. And as that same debate revealed, the candidates are different on an astonishing array of issues, ranging from taxes to abortion, the death penalty to military spending to these statements about gun control.

[Audio from debate]

No Tweedledee and Tweedledum there. You have a clear choice in this election.

The easy trap to fall into is this: that the campaign itself becomes the issue. But think about it for a minute: are you really going decide the future of America based on whether the Republican should release his tax return or because the Democrats switched candidates? That's what the campaign managers want you to be thinking about, but don't let them get away with it. What matters is the momentous decisions for our country the winner will get to make for the next six years. So between now and Tuesday, ignore the campaign commercials, decide what's important to you, and by all means, vote.

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