Celebrate patriotism in the best way

Everybody loves a parade, especially in the middle of the summer on the 4th of July, but why don't these same enthusiastic, patriotic crowds flock to the polls and cast their votes at election time?

For people who love to celebrate freedom and independence and heartily wave the American flag, we do not have a very good record of exercising the most fundamental of our rights - voting.

Many do not even register to vote. In Connecticut, only one in three eligible voters was registered to vote in 2010. Our state is working toward making registration more available, and succeeded in building a foundation for doing so this last legislative session. It is a process of bringing down barriers and implementing easier ways to register, including registering online. Registering to vote on Election Day also became law, but not in time for the coming November election.

Some who do not register are unsure of how to go about registering; others do not fully appreciate the importance of participating in a democracy; and some just do not care.

For the people who are registered to vote, why are the percentages of those registered to vote versus those who actually vote so disparate? Our state's 2010 gubernatorial election saw what political observers labeled a stellar turnout, stellar in terms of typical off-presidential-year elections, that is. Of the 2,024,924 registered voters, 1,163,320 voted - more than 57 percent. But really, where were the other 861,604 registered voters?

The 2008 presidential election garnered record voter participation here, at 78 percent, the single highest voter turnout ever in the state. More than 300,000 new Connecticut voters registered during that year before the election, with more than half between the ages of 18 and 29. Connecticut participation ranked 17th nationally, yet there remains room for improvement.

New voter registrations lag substantially this year, just one indicator that the 2008 numbers will not be matched in 2012, with the economy still on the edge and the excitement of four years ago long dissipated by political reality.

Local elections fare far worse, with participation often in the 20- to 30-percent range and even down to single-digit percentage in some cases.

On this Independence Day, as the nation celebrates the founding of the Republic and its representative system of governance, it is appropriate to ponder the disconnect that exists between feeling patriotic and actually voting.

Apathy plays a part, as some do not think their vote will count, despite evidence to the contrary. Somehow, someone else will make the decisions.

Sometimes people throw up their hands, not liking the candidates, and decide to sit out the election. The increasingly negative nature of campaigns adds to voters concluding there are no good candidates. But in the end, not voting amounts to the same thing - letting others choose for you.

Education plays a part. Many people do not understand the workings of democracy and the fundamental importance of participation. They are confused about the basics of government and how it functions. People have to learn that information somewhere, and if it's not taught in the schools (they need to do a better job) or at home, especially early on, they are likely to feel disenfranchised.

Culture plays a part. People are busy. Most work hard. They have too many things to do. And too often they do not make voting a priority.

Changes can help. Allow early voting, as seen in many states. Culminate that process with an Election Day holiday, as recommended in the 2012 Election Performance Report, completed earlier this year under the direction of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. Why not make Election Day, at least in presidential and gubernatorial election years, a time to focus on this important act of citizenship, rather than trying to squeeze in voting around the normal routines of the day?

The culture surrounding voting has to change and we need to create the culture deserved of Election Day. Make it the big deal that it truly is.

However, responsibility ultimately rests with the individual. Enjoy the parades, the fireworks, the picnic and beach trips, but participating during the cool of November in the democratic process is the truer test of patriotism. Register to vote and wave your flag all the way to the polls.

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