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Long-Distance Democracy

By Sarah Jacoby

In my junior year of high school, in United States History, we learned about voting patterns in our dear country. I sat wide-eyed in disbelief-nobody voted, nobody cared, propositions and presidents were put in place by a measly proportion of the population. The horror, the horror.

I couldn't wait to turn 18 and have the incredible privilege of having a say in my government. I would pay careful attention to local politics, notice how my representatives behaved in Congress, read the fine print about the lists of bills I would be deciding on and vote responsibly.

Well...let's just say it didn't pan out as planned.

The first hurdle to overcome in being a good citizen is getting a ballot. Sample ballots, applications for absentee ballots and absentee ballots themselves often appear dangerously close to voting day itself, tragically slowed by the national mail. This year I am betting on the IOP. Cross my fingers and hope to die.

So let's suppose I actually get my ballot, and there's a nice window of time in which it can actually, feasibly get back to the Registrar-Recorder by November 3. Here comes the real problem--filling it out. The list of names are meaningless: governor, attorney general, U.S. representative, school superintendent. These are the people who can actually affect my beloved Los Angeles County, and all I know about them is what party they belong to. The Natural Law party? What's that? Maybe I should vote for their candidate. I couldn't feel much more clueless. It's hard to rationalize voting blindly, poking my little metal toothpick through the card arbitrarily...

And then the countless propositions. Californians are famous for their propositions. The three sentences synapses have a tendency to sound just wonderful and then someone explains that just because it seems to say that all public schools will be beautifully rebuilt, it actually means they are shutting down all of them and building deportation centers for illegal immigrants in their stead. So I feel tentative as I read the pleasant descriptions. What do they really mean? The Boston Globe sheds no light.

Which brings me to one of the significant problems with being far from home. By insisting on being registered in California, I present a challenge to myself and I have to keep up. No propaganda mail comes to the Mather Mail Center. So, I can't notice that all the promotional mail for my favorite proposition is paid for by the Coalition to Deport the People Who Pick Grapes. No local papers with detailed breakdowns of what every wishy-washy candidate says he or she believes is tucked under my door. All I have is my metal toothpick and one or two paid advertisements for the sheriff.

So why not register here in Cambridge instead of complaining about being uninformed? Why do so many people stick to their home states? I have personal reasons--Cambridge does not need another bleeding-heart liberal; California desperately does.

And home is home is home. It's not Cambridge; it's where I care about. So I must figure out my ballot. The paper's endorsements are read to me over the phone, everything filtered through my family. I'm not being a grown-up and proudly casting my vote according to my opinion and mine alone. I'm begging for advice in my void of information.

I'll try to fill the ballot out in time and get it to where it must be. But how can I be invested in my vote when I played so passive a role in the decision-making. And why am I not particularly concerned? Apathy, cynicism, Generation Y malaise?

Exit polls? Maybe. Absentee ballots are counted long after winners are announced and propositions approved. Pundits mention that absentee ballots have yet to be counted, may tip the balance, but it is unlikely. So my carefully punched-in holes wallow away. Does every vote really count?

Maybe I am apolitical, maybe we are yet another self-absorbed generation without the energy to get it together to be concerned. We've been raised and matured on Watergate, Iran-contra and Monica. Maybe expectations have hit rock bottom and there is no reason to bother.

Say it ain't so. I'm going to play optimist and claim it's just a phase. It's not that grapes are the only thing we can get worked up about; it's that we are temporarily living in a bubble. I have no connection with my current surroundings, and for the moment it's valid to continue a long-distance voting relationship even though it's hard to care with so many miles between. But it can't stay this way.

Next stop, we must throw down some roots, register where we live and vote at the neighborhood elementary school. We owe it to ourselves, and, yup, our country, to be the imaginary, responsible citizen I envisioned in high school--not apolitical but just hindered by the mail.

Sarah B. Jacoby '99 is a history of science concentrator in Mather House. Her column will appear on alternate Mondays.

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