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Published: Sunday, 4/20/2003

How to address low voter turnout?

This is the year that people who work with elections get to stop, think, and question everything they do.

Do their ballots make sense to voters? Are voting locations convenient to voters? Are disabled voters disenfranchised? Does anybody care?

That last question is the one that gnaws at elections officials. They know voting is at the core of the republic, but they are haunted by voter turnout that seems to plummet with every election.

Especially local elections, like those we face here in Lucas County this year.

The federal government, in passing the Help America Vote Act last year, has forced the national re-evaluation of the country's voting systems. Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the man in charge of elections in Ohio, recently convened a committee to review voting around the state. It met Thursday in Columbus, at which time many of its members wrestled with the enigma surrounding low voter involvement among the young.

It's really not so much of a puzzle, said Jim Underwood, a longtime newspaperman who has been hired by Mr. Blackwell to help the committee explore the breadth of election issues on its plate.

The problem, he said, is that young people are pre-occupied with computers, studies, music, and each other, and that they will eventually begin to pay attention to politics when they feel a need to understand it.

Others on the committee said they have tried to get young voters involved, but with mixed results.

Jeff Matthews, director of the Stark County board of elections and one of the 13 committee members, said they have recruited teens to work the polls on Election Day.

“They work one or two elections and then they move on in life,” said Mr. Matthews. “It is just a cost of doing business.”

The importance of elections, and voting, is largely lost on kids, he said, because they don't seem to know much about it. He said his impression is that schools are spending no time teaching it in the classroom.

“I don't know how you teach government without teaching voting,” he said.

Pastor Aaron Wheeler, chairman of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, who also serves on the committee, agreed.

“Teaching government is not enough. I am talking about a course in elections and a course in taxes. Those are two things that you have to do the rest of your life,” he said, so it is important to understand both topics early.

It does not seem relevant to young adults because it has not been made so, Pastor Wheeler added. In a free society where self-interest drives much of what Americans do, young voters need to learn why it is in their self-interest to vote, he said.

Understanding the difference between those two numbers on their paychecks - the one that shows what they made and the other that shows what they get to keep - should be enough to shock young workers into reality, but it hasn't happened.

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The committee released a preliminary plan last week outlining how Ohio will implement the new federal election reform law, and it answered some basic questions about whether counties will be able to select which new electronic voting system is to be used by their voters (they will).

Mr. Blackwell's office will first require companies to prove they meet federal guidelines, since the feds are picking up most of the cost of the new equipment. Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Mr. Blackwell, said he expects about six or seven companies to qualify.

The plan requires companies to have the capacity to provide machines and service to all 88 counties in the state - even though the state knows full well that one company is not going to win the contracts for all 88 counties. The point, Mr. LoParo said, is that Mr. Blackwell wants companies to have the capacity to meet the service demands that counties will generate. He knows, Mr. LoParo added, that all 50 states are in the midst of an equipment upgrade, and that companies will be stretched very thin in meeting service demands nationwide.

If some glitch shows up late in the game in the machines of a major manufacturer, the 2004 election cycle could quickly become a nightmare that could make the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida look like a day in the park. Mr. LoParo said that, should the worst case scenario happen, Mr. Blackwell is trying to make sure that Ohio doesn't end up holding the bag.

Whether Ohio, or any other state, can be insulated from such a fiasco is yet unknown.



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