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Voters left out in the cold

By Deron Overpeck
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
January 26, 2000
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Monday, a few Iowans made a particularly meaning less statement in the incredibly meaningless prelude to the atrociously meaningless American presidential election. The Iowa caucus was covered by news media as though it were important in determining who will be the next chief of state. The vast gap between the event's actual importance and its media importance indicate how divorced Americans are from a process designed to keep government in the hands of the wealthy.

Only 8.3 percent of the eligible Hawkeye voters actually turned out for the caucus, including 4.8 percent of registered Republicans. A plurality (41 percent) of them indicated Texas Gov. George W. Bush would be the best Republican presidential candidate. Let's assume Iowa has 100,000 eligible voters. If this were so, only 8,300 voters participated, 4,800 of whom were Republican. Of this 4,800, 1,968 opted for Bush.

On the Democratic side of our model, 3,500 voters made it to the straw polls; 2,205 tabbed Vice President Al Gore. In other words, the rough, non-binding opinions of approximately 4,200 voters have been presented as determining the favorites in the nation's next presidential candidates. The national news media cover this non-event for weeks, and the candidates spend enormous amounts of money to curry the favor of the few voters who believe their actions matter.

Not everyone believes the Iowa caucus matters. Arizona Sen. John McCain got as much attention for not campaigning there as the other candidates did for campaigning. A few commentaries did mention the caucuses were not binding endorsements of candidates, but merely early indicators of how one medium-sized state that happens to have the first political contest of the presidential season might vote. But these voices are a few; the contest still draws disproportionate media and political attention.

Although the straw poll is a pointless exercise, this year's low turnout is part of a trend of sad electoral turnouts. General elections are now considered successful if anything approaching 55 percent of eligible voters participate. Most turnouts these days hover around 40-50 percent. Political commentators have opened these shrinking figures point to the increasing irrelevancy of politics in the lives of Americans. Citizens do not participate in the electoral process because either they don't believe it directly affects their lives, or they don't believe their interests are represented by government.

And of course, they're right; the political system is not responsive to the needs of citizens, as we understand the term "citizen." Our government, despite its lip service to individual rights, was designed and continues to function in the interests of the wealthy who can afford to pay to have their wants fulfilled. This is why the Constitution did not provide for direct election of senators or the president (and still does not for the president). Instead, it set up an electoral college which voted for these high officers. The reason for this was the founding fathers believed the common folk were not intelligent enough to elect wisely -and aren't state representatives Jean McGrath and Barbara Brewster evidence of that? Citizenship was conceived as a responsibility and an honor, not as a right to be trusted to the unwashed, uneducated, unpropertied masses.

Though the electoral system has been liberalized in the 200 years since the adoption of the Constitution, the overall structure of American political life has remained the same. Politics is the playground of the rich and connected who legislate in the interests of the rich and connected. When we, as individual citizens, vote for representation, we are not selecting our representatives, but the representatives of the various vested interests whose business decisions and actions structure our everyday lives. Government is nothing more than an arena that mediates how we interact with the institutions that directly shape our destinies.

A hopeful conclusion would be to encourage participation in the system via support for candidates who will represent popular interests. But, in the end, that would be pointless. The candidates are still selected through a process designed to support the candidate who collects the most contributions from the rich and powerful. Each contest is between two representatives of political parties dedicated to protecting this process - in other words, the lesser of two evils. But the lesser of two evils is still evil.

Deron Overpeck is a graduate student in Media Arts. He can be reached at editor@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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