It's National Civics Season once again. The public service baritones of stage and screen are reminding us to vote. In guilt-provoking tones, they say it is our duty to go to the polls. Never mind who we vote for, just vote.
Well, I am a hopeless, compulsive voter. Can't help myself. Give me an election for town meeting member or president and I'll hoof over to the high school gym, pass the PTA bake-sale table and head for the booth. I'll push my lever just as if I really had some leverage.
But this year I feel a small rebellious urge. It occurs to me that I have been voting for presidential candidates since 1964. No, let me try that again. I have been voting between candidates since 1964.
Never once in my career as an addicted voter have I skipped down to the presidential polls with a gung-ho tingle in my compulsive little fingertips or a chorus of "Happy Days Are Here Again" in my heart.
I was hooked 16 years ago by History. I know a change of one voter per precinct has elected presidents. But Current Events could break the habit. I am less and less convinced that the difference makes any difference.
The candidates this time may have gotten a bad rap. These choices are not much worse than among other men in other years. It's just that more are refusing to choose.
This year we can expect that half of us will vote. The man who wins will be elected by no more than a quarter of us.
We can also expect that between election and inauguration, the winner will turn that margin into a "landslide," pleased as punch that he has won our mandate.
If Carter wins, he will interpret it publicly as an endorsement for his policies. If Reagan wins, he will tell us it's because we approve of his alternatives.
Neither one will admit the truth: that he won because more of us couldn't stand his opponent.
Well, I am infuriated by the idea that any of these candidates will stand up and present himself as the embodied will of the people. I have given many votes, but never a single mandate.
I suspect that many more of us are dutiful voters than ardent followers. Now, especially, we give our vote reluctantly and suspend our loyalty altogether. It's a problem to head a country of such wary non-followers. It's a problem to need leadership and distrust the potential leaders.
This time the alienation of the dutiful voter is enough to turn a hard-core, hundred-lever-a-year addict off the stuff. It is tempting to vote for the candidate you feel most positive about: nobody. It's tempting to send a message by withholding a vote.
The chic apolitical bumper sticker of 1980 may be "Don't blame me, I'm not voting for any of them."
Gore Vidal, a self-proclaimed voice of the Non-Voters Party, says that pushing the lever for any of the three leading candidates is against the interest of the country. If two-thirds refused to vote, the election would lack all legitimacy, he says, and this would lead to change.
What if they gave an election and nobody came? What if the next president was elected by 18 percent of the eligible voters. Maybe massive non-voting would eventually lead to a different set of choices. Maybe passive rebellion would lead to change.
I suspect, however, it would lead to presidents elected by 18 percent.
I suppose it's possible to pass this one up, to stay home, to go to the polls and ignore the first line on the ballot, to vote for 1984 by not voting in 1980. But only if we can't find a shred of difference, a scintilla of choice to be made . . . or if we're awfully optimistic about the next four years.
That's the rub. It's hard to non-vote for the long run when the short-run seems so critical. Hard to let someone else make the decisions for four years when that period could be crucial, even catastrophic.
So, I'll vote again, along with the other dutiful voters and civics students. But heaven help the winner who calls this vote a mandate.