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Vote early and often, right? Citizen participation at the polls is supposed to be the underpinning of democracy.

But what happens when the fact that nearly half the electorate doesn't vote isn't the worse part of the story? What happens when the political system has become so irrelevant that even many who vote can't really say why?

You won't hear that analyzed by the experts explaining away this year's small audiences for the televised debates -- so small that the debates would have been canceled if they had been regular TV shows.

Instead, they dismiss the apathy by talking about the lack of a close presidential race, a relatively health economy and the failure of Ross Perot to stir things up.

The two parties seem equally oblivious to the fact that something more disturbing than mere complacency is at work here. Republicans press ahead with plans to forsake Bob Dole's sinking rowboat and plead for control of Congress so they can checkmate Bill Clinton.

Democrats seek control by warning of more Newt Gingrich-inspired lunacy. And for blacks, they dangle an added carrot: A good turnout that turns over Congress would mean veteran blacks like Charlie Rangel, Ron Dellums and John Conyers would take over key committees.

But while all of that is fodder for shows like "Capital Gang" -- where pundits give style points to politicians who perform for them in a closed circle -- none of it seems to matter much on an afternoon in Delaware Park.

If a sampling of African-Americans there is any indication, what the campaign wonks don't see is that -- despite real philosophical differences between the parties -- by the time the debate reaches the street, history has taught that the only real difference is between those who have power and those who don't.

"I don't vote at all; I don't believe in it. All we're doing is making those guys rich and we're getting poorer and poorer," says 34-year-old Barry Brown in between basketball games in the park.

"They say our votes count, right? What election did we win?" the African-American asks.

But what's as surprising as those who opt out is that many who plan to vote are stumped when asked for a reason for doing so. For some, it seems as much force of habit and a tribute to those who braved police dogs as it is any real belief that it makes a difference.

"Black people have fought for this equal rights thing, that's why I put my vote in," says Nate Singletary, a 43-year-old bakery worker.

But what will it matter?

"Now that's a good one," Singletary says, with the look of a man who would give $64,000 for a good answer.

When pressed for a reason, the best that Eddie Brown, 36, can come up with is that his father is active in politics.

"I have to really, honestly say that he likes for me to vote, so I vote," he says.

It's not that these people are unaware. Brown, a Democrat, mocks President Clinton's claims of creating millions of new jobs by noting that many of them are part-time. He knows because he's worked them.

And while 33-year-old carpenter Thomas Betts doesn't talk about 100,000 new cops on the street -- as Clinton constantly does -- he has his own ideas for fighting drug crime: Have police move into a neighborhood house posing as an ordinary working family so they can see what neighbors see every day and gather the evidence they claim they can't get.

People like this know what affects their lives. Betts, in fact, scoffs at the 50-cent hike in the minimum wage that took effect this month. He says $4.75-an-hour isn't enough to let a worker pay rent and utilities, buy furniture and do everything else necessary to become self-sufficient.

"When you raise the minimum wage to $7 an hour, then we can talk," he says.

These Buffalonians know what's going on. The problem is that they don't see much connection between the political process and what happens in their lives. And they're not alone. An Associated Press poll found that 28 percent of likely voters feel it would be good if Democrats retake Congress, while 25 percent feel it would be bad. But the largest number -- 33 percent -- feel it would make no difference at all.

Betts says politicians out of touch with street-level concerns should get out of their controlled settings with "a thousand and one bodyguards" and mingle anonymously.

"If you want to talk to the people, talk to them for real. Don't get all suited down," he says.

Still, he's one of the most adamant about voting. But if he, and others like him, can't explain why voting matters, how much longer will they vote? And what will happen when they stop?

It's bad enough that nearly half the population will stay home Tuesday. But when even many of those who go to the polls feel it won't make much difference, it should be a warning sign that U.S. democracy is in real trouble.

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