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VOTER PARTICIPATION AN ONGOING PUZZLE

The poet Swinburne insisted that even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea. The same cannot be said of today's presidential candidacies, all but two of which will soon end, in an atmosphere out of Poe.

Trounced in Iowa, Bill Bradley must win New Hampshire. If next Tuesday night he is 0-2, he will have to wait 35 days for another chance to win something -- March 7. Then there are 21 primaries in eight days, a pace that favors Al Gore, who is supported by the Democrats' muscular factions.

If Iowa's results convince New Hampshire's independents that the only remaining race is the Republicans', John McCain will benefit. But probably not for long. He has made a shrewd and gallant fight, concentrating his resources -- scant money, abundant media support -- where they might have a large multiplier effect. But George Bush is the only Republican running a continental campaign.

There is no love lost between Bradley and Gore, and Bradley has enough of the two key resources -- money and stubbornness -- to persevere through March. However, if he loses in New Hampshire, party leaders will press him to quit rather than force Gore to burn money in the 15 states that vote March 7.

But already, the preconvention phase of campaign 2000 is almost over. However, most Americans are unstirred, as was Iowa, where turnout was low in spite of all the attention lavished on it. So perhaps this year, as in 1996, most Americans of voting age will not vote. But before non-voting triggers the quadrennial autopsy on democracy, note that non-voting has a history.

Intermediate string overflow Cannot justify line Sociologist Michael Schudson says 18th century participation rates were much lower -- 15 to 25 percent of adult male Bostonians, 10 to 25 percent in New England generally, 20 to 40 percent in New York and Pennsylvania, generally under 50 percent in Connecticut. Schudson says that "in the Concord where Ralph Waldo Emerson boasted of 'the whole population of the town having a voice,' " town meeting participation averaged 42 percent.

Time was, voting for candidates for federal offices seemed unimportant because the federal government did, too. A man who grew up in a small Missouri town in the 1870s recalled that the post office was the only evidence of the federal government: "No other federal activity was known except to those few who paid customs duties on imports or excise taxes for the manufacture of whiskey, tobacco and matches or bought revenue stamps to validate their bank checks."

Now the federal government is everywhere, including in ways that make voting seem unimportant. And other disincentives for political participation proliferate.

Campaign "reformers" stigmatize as a "problem" participation in politics by contributing money. The absence of term limits, combined with sophisticated, computer-driven gerrymandering, virtually guarantees that the vast majority of congressional races are uncompetitive. (In 1998, 94 representatives were elected unopposed.) Judges and bureaucracies impervious to elections make many of the decisions most important to people, from the location and curricula of schools to racial quotas in employment.

Among institutional impediments to voting, poll taxes are long gone, and nowhere is registration burdensome. But many people who believe, irrationally, that a high voter turnout is intrinsically good now favor voting on the Internet. Arizonans can vote that way during the four days prior to the Democratic primary on March 11. California's Gov. Gray Davis says that "within five to seven years, Americans will be casting ballots on the Internet just as easily as they can buy stock on Ameritrade today."

Such improvers would improve democracy by making voters out of people who are too slothful or uninterested to leave their homes in order to vote. Such improvers would expunge from our civic liturgy a communitarian moment, the Election Day coming together for the allocation of offices. So enjoy what remains of this year's campaign, before the arrival of "virtual voting."

Washington Post Writers Group

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