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Wednesday, August 1, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Knocking down barriers to civic engagement

Special to The Times

Picture 19 Safeco Fields packed to capacity. That's about how many people in Puget Sound decided last fall to trash their right to vote.

Naturally, "turnout" figures only account for what happens with registered voters. They ignore people who could be registered to vote, but aren't. Across central Puget Sound (King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties), about 60 percent of those who could have been registered voters in last year's presidential election actually registered and then bothered to vote. It breaks down like this: Census data show there were some 2.3 million-plus U.S. citizens age 18 and over in the four counties as of last fall. But the Washington secretary of state reports only 1.4 million November general election ballots cast in the same area.

Of the more than 900,000 local tune-outs, a bit more than half were registered voters. An almost equal number were U.S. citizens of voting age, but failed to even register.

Statewide, only 60 percent of voting-age citizens who could've registered and voted did so last November. Forty percent of eligible-to-vote Washington citizens — some 1.6 million — were bystanders.

The figures convey serious indifference to the signal act of participatory democracy, more so because participation in hot-button presidential elections is as high as it gets. Generally, older whites vote more, others less.

Seattle NAACP volunteers have been registering new voters at selected community festivals this summer, says president emeritus Lacy Steele. Black-led voter-registration drives are also revving up in Milwaukee and Atlanta.

"I have heard many excuses for not voting. None of them are valid," Steele says.

The Seattle chapter hopes to interview city and county candidates before this fall's elections, then issue a report card of their positions on issues such as racial profiling, unemployment among young blacks, rising housing and health-care costs, and legislative redistricting.

Efforts to highlight the importance of electoral politics to youth also continue. W. Lance Bennett, a University of Washington professor of political science and communications, is director of the Seattle Student Voices Project. Part of a national program, it's funded with a $400,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. This fall, students at 15 local high schools will review issues facing Seattle mayoral candidates, question the contestants and hold a mock online election.

"Young people are increasingly disengaged from politics and elections. We're trying to change that by engaging students creatively in an actual campaign," says Bennett.

There's more. UW speech communication professor John Gastil, in his recent book "By Popular Demand," outlines a proposal (originally from Minnesota) to boost civic engagement. You might see it on your Washington ballot before long. State-sponsored "citizen juries" would deliberate ballot measures and issue findings to help voters wade through the muck and mire of opposing initiative campaigns.

Says Gastil: "We don't know what the hell we're doing. Voters need to feel qualified, and that their choices will be consequential."

Barriers to civic engagement include lack of knowledge and time, plus half-hearted voter-registration efforts by the major political parties. Cynicism is fed by ceaseless partisan posturing in Washington, D.C., and state capitals. Also diminishing confidence in politics as a force for good was the moral cancer of the Clinton presidency — a horror to more than a few Democrats, as well as easy fodder for Republicans.

The federal campaign-finance system is a huge turnoff as well. A major step toward real reform would be government-only funding of elections for president, Congress and Senate. That would limit the IOUs officeholders have to contributors.

The path for now: Don't expect big changes, but do make the most of our flawed system. Debate of issues and tracking of performance must be driven by community institutions, government, the media and voters, not biased special interests.

Blasé detachment is so painless. But the common perception that nothing ever happens as a result of American politics is off base. It's true the capital and social-service infrastructures serving our region, state and nation require complicated overhauls, fraught with political risk. The state Legislature's regrettable failure to approve new taxes for transportation nonetheless illustrates the power of fiscally conservative voters.

But countless local elections have shown the might of moderates, resulting in additional funds for new parks, libraries, schools and other public facilities.

While it's popular sport to bash tax-cut initiative king Tim Eyman, his critics should actually thank him for laying out so clearly the challenges they face: registration, education and participation. Until we do better, we deserve whatever we get from politicians and pocketbook populists.

Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle writer and regular contributor to The Times' opinion page. He can be reached at oudist@nwlink.com.

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