Duty Calls … Again

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On September 9, 2001, while working in my former life as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle, I wrote a small story headlined “Primary Turnout Likely to be Low.”

In the newspaper business, this kind of story is called an advance piece. The story quoted election officials hoping that 20 percent of registered primary voters might show up to a primary that would be held two days later.

But, of course, it wasn’t held. Because the world had changed. Or so we thought.

On what was supposed to be Primary Day – I wound up writing a story about a polling place on September 11 – or at least what was supposed to be a polling place. It was the Immanuel Baptist Church on Park Avenue in Rochester. I wrote how voting machine number 174225 sat locked in a back room of the church, unused.

The main sanctuary had 150 people inside, praying at noon, the time when the primary election polling was supposed to have started. Elections were the furthest thing from their minds.

But a few people still had to deal with the election, mainly to stop it. I quoted a state Supreme Court judge who was assigned to oversee Election Day matters that day. Instead of dealing with instances of whether or not a person could vote on that day, Judge David Egan was faced with shutting down the election entirely. Egan did so, before the state ultimately postponed it. Egan said he was initially angered at the thought of halting the balloting.

“I didn’t want them to control our lives,” he said of the terrorists who rammed planes into buildings that day.

Elections Commissioner Peter Quinn said that the cancellation was a grim message. “Elections are part of our freedom. This is another way to take our freedom,” he said five years ago.

We thought that somehow this horrific act would give rise to a new American resolve. We would become more serious and embrace once again the idea of community and civic responsibility. Folks like me who had an interest in government and politics hoped this would spark a rise in civic involvement that would mean more conversation about politics and a greater turnout at the polls.

The voter would again hear the call to duty.

But five years later, it is hard to argue that we are hearing that higher calling.

Excuses predominate. Eliot Spitzer is inevitable. Who cares if John Spencer or K.T. McFarland wins, they can’t beat Hillary Clinton. I don’t have the time. All those politicians are the same. My vote won’t change a damn thing.

Oh, there are people who will not only hear the call to duty, but embrace it.

New York Matters, a project spearheaded by the Center for Governmental Research, will hold forums in places around the state beginning this week. The economy is the subject in Buffalo on Thursday… taxes will be the center of attention on Long Island on Saturday. A few weeks later we again tackle economic issues in Rochester and education funding in New York City.

Regular folks with day jobs and children will attend these forums. I marvel at them because, despite all the barriers, they are hearing that higher calling.

Yet many will bypass this election on Tuesday and the general election on November 7. They will not bother learning the issues, let alone talk about them. They will opt out.

This call to duty asks really doesn’t ask much. It doesn’t deny that a voter has job responsibilities, chores at home, kids to feed, even the need for a little down time

It just asks for the same respect as these other responsibilities.

This call to duty also doesn’t deny that others have to meet a challenge. The press needs to balance an obligation to shareholders and advertisers with a need to give the public good information to make an informed choice. Candidates need to balance serving party and donor desires with the requirement to stand for positions clearly and with conviction.

But it does call for the voter to participate. Not just to vote, but to understand what’s at stake when voting.

For what is the alternative? Duty denied is democratic power squandered.

And maybe, as we mourn the horror of 9-11, we might think back to the day when the voting booths were forced shut. When a judge recoiled at the idea of letting others “control our lives.”

Who is controlling your civic life?

Duty calls … again.

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