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Democracy isn't really government by the people, it's government by the people who vote. So on Nov. 5, get out and do it.

Whose Election Is It Anyway?

In the 1994 U.S. mid-term elections, with 435 House seats at stake, 35 Senatorial seats, 36 governorships and thousands of state and local offices to be filled, only 35 percent of registered voters -- 37 percent of the voting-age population -- went to the polls.

Since many of the races, especially for the House, were close (won by only a percentage point or two) this means a good number of our legislators are legislating for all of us based on their having captured less than two out of every 10 potential votes.

That's hardly a healthy democracy. Assuming an average of two people 18 or older in each household, it's tantamount to the voters in every fifth household comprising a governing "elite." Look at it this way: If you don't vote, you're giving somebody else who does more political clout than you and the scores of millions of other non-voters combined. And that lone voter may want to raise your taxes, send your kids to war or any other number of things.

Your Vote Counts
For years, pundits made the point that in the photo-finish election of John F. Kennedy over Richard M. Nixon in 1960, the margin of victory amounted to less than one vote per precinct nationwide. If you were a potential voter that year and decided to stay away, your vote could well have cost your candidate that precinct.

In 1994, in Connecticut's Second District, Demo-cratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson edged out Republican challenger Edward W. Munster by a razor-thin two votes out of some 160,000 cast.

If you were a Gejdenson voter and just you and one other like-minded friend had decided to switch, the outcome would have been reversed.

Trust Yourself
It's your precious vote, hard-won in history, so make it count. Make it yours. A lot of people don't take the trouble to become well-informed. They say to themselves: "I'll let the New York Times or the Cleveland Plain Dealer decide who the better candidates are. I'll follow their recommendations." Many people don't even watch the debates. But if voters don't study the issues themselves and make up their own minds, they're ineffect abdicating their vote to somebody else or acting as the media's proxy.

What's the most important issue before the nation this election year? Drugs? Crime? The economy? Big government? Health care? Surveys reveal that you'll likely answer according to what the media has decided to give the most extensive coverage.

Researcher G.R. Funkhouser cautioned that by focusing on "newsworthy" events, such as hostage-takings or terrorist bombings, while ignoring long-standing conditions such as unemployment or racism, the media can "set the agenda" for political discussion and give adistorted sense of the nation's priorities.

And when you do check out the debates, talk them over with your family and friends to decide what they mean for all of you. The media is infatuated withdeclaring winners and losers, but that's hardly the point of the debates. They're not about a horse race -- they're about our nation's dreams and aspirations, and how these might best be fulfilled.

In a now-classic study of the first debate between challenger Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford in 1976, viewers immediately afterward were asked to pick who they thought was the winner. By a margin of 2 to 1, they chose Carter.

But after several days of persistent media declarations that "Ford had done better than expected and therefore was the victor," viewers totally reversed themselves and gave the nod to Ford by the same 2-to-1 edge.

The moral of the story: Believe your own eyes, ears, mind and heart. Don't surrender your franchise to anyone or any organization.

By John D. McGervey and Bill Sones