Page 11


ESSAY Why Joanne Can’t Vote . BY JULIE ARDERY INEVITABLY, IT BRINGS to light the hard sponges, the mounds of lint, and the syrup that coagulates under heavy appliances; moving day takes grit. I remembered this in early March, when a half dozen of us had assembled at a shabby frame house in Smithville to move the Bastrop County Women’s Shelter to its new brick quarters down the road. We were barely acquainted: a cowboy candidate for county commissioner, a neon artist, a part-time staffer, a Presbyterian minister \(also the county’s And there I was, wanting with the rest of them just to get it finished and come away with both my thumbs. The move fell on the eve of primary elections, Reckoning Monday. So while several of us matched Tupperware lids and bottoms, packed, and passed verdict on the miscellany under the kitchen sink, I thought I’d poll the moving crew. First, Joanne. Mother of two teenagers and the unflappable house manager of the Women’s Shelter, she looked at me sternly. She said she hadn’t made up her mind about the candidates for President; in fact, she wasn’t sure she’d be voting at all because, Joanne declared, “I don’t think I know enough.” My curiosity slammed shut in the halfempty kitchen, with nods all around. Sheepishly, I nodded too. Was I sure Jackson’s platform included strong environmental protections? Could I tell Dole from Dukakis just by comparing their plans for public schools? Was Gephardt’s balance of trade notion a wise one? What was that notion again, anyway? And to think I’d dared plan to go to the polls. . . . Only after we’d strapped the last boxsprings onto the truck and dispersed \(thumbs going to vote. And I became flabbergasted imagining what would happen if people of experience and probity like Joanne failed to do so. I wondered why she’d disqualified herself and why her plea of ignorance had seemed, momentarily, so Writer Julie Ardery is the alternate delegate to the state Democratic convention from Precinct 3, Smithville. honorable and astute. The same question had come my way in college, the only lecture I remember from the only poli-sci class I ever took. Professor Obler, a turnip with glasses, bemoaned the inequity of the U.S. political system. Why, he argued, when the wealthy afford more and bigger cars, the talented claim fame, and the beautiful win the beautiful lovers, why then shouldn’t his one great defining virtue his thorough understanding of the American political system entitle him to more than one vote, more than the average Joe? Election day is a time to hope. The reason is that citizenry, not expertise, is the entitling factor in American politics. We can rejoice in knowing that on election day the nation doesn’t belong only to the David Brinkleys and Milton Friedmans. At least it doesn’t have to. Recognizing the gaps in my own political understanding, I still couldn’t choose Joanne’s recourse, abstention, but I think I’ve begun to understand it. I’ve had to, after hearing her declaration “I don’t know enough” repeated so authoritatively so many times since. This response to politics is frustration disguised as integrity, a paralysis that, measured in voting statistics, began in 1960 and continued through two decades. Why is it that only half the eligible voters take part in choosing a President? The media usually get blamed. The bromide goes that television, in particular, has held out on the public, creating apathy by promoting dentition and sex over what Gary Hart calls “policy,” Dole, “the issues.” I don’t buy it. From where I sit there’s been an immense opportunity to study the candidates, to put them to every test short of urinalysis. Even our daily newspaper, a bastion of superficiality, has carried extensive background stories on each candidate and a series that ran for weeks in which 11 of the wouldbe Presidents answered scores of questions. I have listened to debates, watched the caucuses on C-SPAN, read magazine articles \(and I admit to buying the Monkey Business edition of My sense is that rather than holding out on the public, the media has squashed us with information, building our anxiety about the election but not making the decision any easier. The old authority of political party machines obliged us to loyalty. As the new authority, the media have inculcated a different sense of obligation: what we “ought” to have learned before we enter the voting booth. This burden is, I believe, what I’ve heard Joanne and many, many others describe; they cannot in good conscience participate in a process about which there’s so much that can be known. To perceive that burden indicates a degree of sophistication, an admission of life’s complexities and the importance of political power, but it contorts the voting process. Rather than scrutinizing the candidates’ qualifications, the eyeballs of the electorate have rolled back, to analyze itself. Public opinion pollsters, wearing the crowns of science, have only sanctified the trend. What troubles me most about the “I don’t know enough” proponents, though, is that they seem to have forgotten how recently suffrage was won by women, by blacks, by young people. They’re forfeiting those hard-won victories, passing franchise back to the few. How ominous it is that only 20 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated we see a dapper black yuppie stand in a nationally televised forum to ask Jesse Jackson, “Having never held public office, what do you think qualifies you to run for President?” \(Jackson, who’s not the forfeiting kind, answered, “The ConstituIgnorance of the candidates and the issues must not be a badge, either of defiance for those who vote or of integrity for those who refrain from voting. Nor should the antics of campaigns be viewed as the crux of a democracy. Nevertheless, election day is a lot like moving day: a necessary reckoning, maybe a time to hope. Loose ends, lint, nicks included, it must get done. And every few years because a bunch of strangers plunge ahead, it does. 10 MAY 6, 1988