Washingtonians have a reputation for being blase' about things ranging from the trivial (escargot) to the important (power).
But one thing I thought everyone was agreed upon is the importance of trying to better one's lot in life.
So why have 174,000 eligible Washingtonians not even bothered to register so they can vote in the crucial September primary election? With only FIVE days left before the cutoff date, more than one-third of the voting-age population is risking being disenfranchised.
According to D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics statistics, the heaviest registration is in wards 1, 3, 4 and 6; while wards 2, 5, 7 and 8 are lagging way behind. That means the poor aren't voting and the more affluent are. That means the poor, who are already feeling powerless, are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Although the campaign and candidates have been terribly overshadowed by the Barry trial and the heavily charged wait for the verdict, it's important to attend to this basic right of citizenship. Indeed, the incredible events that have put Washington into the international spotlight demand that every citizen participate in selecting candidates who will be responsive to local desires. Conversely, in our faltering drive for statehood, failure to vote allows Congress to continue to ride roughshod over us.
Ironically, the same people who didn't register to vote will probably be leading the Moan and Groan Chorus on Nov. 4 if they find themselves at odds with the outcome of the elections. No doubt this huge number includes some of the same people who, a few weeks ago, cheered until they were hoarse for Nelson Mandela, a man who has not been able to vote once in 71 years and who went to prison for 27 years to gain that among other rights he does not have under South African apartheid.
Those 174,000 people also probably include many folks who get teary-eyed at the mention of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, two late civil and human rights activists who shed their blood so that all Americans could have the same rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
Of course, Washingtonians don't have a monopoly on failing to exercise this basic right. The District's approximately 63 percent registration rate compares favorably with the 50 percent of Americans who voted for president of the United States in 1988. That bare-bones level of representation, the lowest turnout since 1924, probably indicates a multifaceted national problem.
But for the District, the special history of blacks, in particular, in attaining the right to vote -- the blood so recently shed, and the challenges to progress and prosperity that still are disproportionately heavy -- suggests the need for exceptional devotion to that privilege.
Indeed, it was 25 years ago Monday that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, bringing to an end decades of literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and white primaries aimed at excluding blacks. Now, voting rights legislation that would further eliminate barriers is being considered on the hill.
For some time now, Jesse L. Jackson, president of the National Rainbow Coalition and a candidate for shadow senator from the District, has been focusing on local registration. On Saturday, pop crooner Melba Moore, gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins and other jazz, gospel and reggae performers will join Jackson at a "Lift Every Voice and Vote" voter registration festival at Freedom Plaza, 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
I hope thousands of Washingtonians turn out on that occasion and sign up to cast their ballots. But with thousands still unregistered, I suspect it will take more than even a free event a couple of days before Monday's registration cutoff to move Washington residents.
Earlier this week, Jackson took his get-out-and-vote message into several hospitals in the city, meeting with doctors and nurses and talking to people even in emergency rooms. He also plans to hand out voter registration forms to eligible prisoners, explaining, "People in jails who are not convicted felons have the right to vote."
Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, along with the Archdiocese of Washington, the Community for Creative Non-Violence and many churches are among the groups who have obtained thousands of voter registration forms.
But admit it, ministers have a special responsibility as leaders of their flocks, and could do even more. Wouldn't it be wonderful if clerics all over town decided to devote this Sunday to preaching of the importance of voting, and then pass out voter registration cards along with the collection plate?
It's easy to register in Washington. You can sign up at the Board of Elections Office at the District Building (call 727-2525), Advisory Neighborhood Council offices and even some barber and beauty shops.
And while voting is not guaranteed to bring everything one wants, failing to vote will certainly bring one exactly what is deserved.