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Try voting for a change

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My parents, Fred and Phyllis Hare, never missed an election. In the 1950's and 60's, they were typical of their friends in the little village of Owego, New York, near the Pennsylvania border. They believed that citizens have a duty to vote and that those who couldn't be bothered had a duty to keep their mouths shut.

"Can't complain about the government," Dad would say, "if you don't vote." Even then it was a cliché, but we'd have a much stronger democracy if people lived by the Fred-and-Phyl rule. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that 90 million eligible voters are likely to take a pass this November for reasons ranging from too-busy-to-vote to disillusionment.

My parents didn't expect politicians to inspire them – although they were occasionally moved by surprising turns. The election of John Kennedy, a fellow Catholic, was a big deal for them, even though he was Democrat.

But my dad, who worked as a Pentagon auditor most of his life, was satisfied when the government didn't screw up. Both of my parents knew that candidates get overheated during campaigns, regularly say things they don't mean. They knew that elections are blunt instruments. They didn't expect to have their way, just to have their say.

They were Republicans, but when the FBI visited them to ask what they knew about the anti-Vietnam War "radicals" their son (me) was hanging around with, they blamed Nixon and never again voted for him or his party. In America, Dad said, people are free to talk to anyone.

They knew that compromise is not a sellout but the alternative to guns in the streets. A friend of mine says he sees every election as a contest between the cruel and perverse Roman Emperor Caligula and the autocratic Augustus, who kept the peace with a quiet ruthlessness. The comparison helps him lower his expectations, but reminds him that there are important, if imperfect, choices to be made. Anyone who thought there was no real difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush would surely agree.

I was a reporter, editorial writer, and columnist for 34 years. I know what it means to have a voice. For most people, like my parents, voting is the only voice they have.

Like many liberals, I wish President Obama had closed Gitmo, got us single payer, and ended the war in Afghanistan. But I'm my parents' son. You don't stay home to wait for the perfect candidate.

In their insightful new book, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann rightly argue that while the Democrats embody the flaws and contradictions of every functioning political party, the Republicans have turned extremism and obstruction into a winning political strategy – that has soured voters on the very act of governing. Ornstein and Mann offer several paths out of this quagmire. The most important, I think, is to roll back restrictive voting laws enacted by several Republican-controlled states and to expand voting with all the available tools, from simplified registration to early voting.

With a bigger pool of voters, the parties would be forced to broaden their appeal, to offer voters programs to better their own lives. We can't fix the system in one election cycle, but we can fix it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and prescient chronicler of the young America, wrote in his 1835 "Democracy in America" that "the further the limit of voting rights is extended, the stronger is the need felt to spread them still wider, for after each new concession the forces of democracy are strengthened, and its demands increase with the augmented power."

Fred and Phyl Hare never read de Tocqueville, but voting was in their blood. They were better for it, and so was America.

Mark Hare recently retired from the Democrat and Chronicle after nearly 28 years as a reporter, editorial writer, editor, and columnist. He got his start in journalism at City, where he was a reporter and columnist for six years. Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal is on break this week.

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