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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Counting Votes -- and Votes That Count

ORLANDO, Florida -- Every hairshirted goo-goo goes into a hand-wringing fit on the subject of voter turnout.

  Here in Florida, the razor's-edge state, Jeb Bush, the president's brother, is in a close race for governor against a man known primarily for not being the president's brother. Turnout is universally agreed to be the key.

President George W. Bush is down here exhorting the Republican faithful and tax-conscious independents to march en masse to the polls, while Bill Clinton is urging the same on blacks and Al Gore is appealing to we-wuz-robbed Democrats.

But if Florida goes the way of the rest of the nation, only two out of five eligible voters will cast their ballots. That miserable 40 percent turnout is part of a long-term downward trend and everybody (except the majority of those who could vote) agrees that it's a shameful thing.

Why is turnout eroding? Negative advertising, we are told -- people are turned off by the shiv-slipping TV spots that besmear both sides, or by pabulum positions taken by candidates afraid to take stands that might alienate a noisy segment of the spectrum, or by the seeming sameness immortalized by the slogan "not a dime's worth of difference."

Baloney. The hawk-dove divide is real, as is the eternal struggle between tax cutters and entitlement believers. The reason for failing to vote is that we are lazy and do not want to take the trouble to fulfill our civic responsibilities. Too many of us would rather kvetch than vote.

What to do? High-minded get-out-the-vote drives using underhanded soft money have proved as ineffective as sleazy "walkin'-around money" cash payoffs: You just can't trust many of the venal voters to do what they promise to do. We're as slippery as the politicians we distrust.

Time to get practical and, like the cruel Greek solon Draco, solve the problem. Here are four different Swiftian ways:

1. Make voting easier. Scrap the traditional, communal polling places, so dear to the hearts of reactionaries. Let all voters become permanent absentees, casting ballots by mail. This will increase fraud on all sides and automatically increase turnout.

But what of last-minute switches to familiar faces by parties behind in the opinion polls, ? la Torricelli's Jersey bounce? Answer: Do all voting by e-mail, allowing final-second bidding by late deciders, as Democrats want. This will appeal to shrewd traditionalists since it would limit voting to computer owners, thereby disenfranchising the poor (heh-heh).

2. Make voting mandatory. Political reformers call this their "Saddam solution," as it would push the percentages up toward a perfect 100 percent. But it would not waste expensive ammunition on nonvoters; instead, penalties would be a $50 fine for failure to vote, payable by automatic deduction from a credit card or entitlement check. Republicans will welcome this, as the fine would be paid gladly by the busy well-to-do, saving them time from onerous waiting in voting lines.

But here's the beauty part: Savvy Democrats will welcome it also as the poor would be forced to vote, and they are presumed to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

3. Make voting rewarding. Put a little "I voted" checkoff box on every income-tax return, enabling the taxpayer to claim a $100 credit for having voted in the previous election. For those on voting rolls but not taxpaying rolls, a crisp bill featuring Benjamin Franklin's visage would cause a stampede to the polls.

4. Suspend distractions that lower voter turnout. Many cities already close bars on Election Day. Extend this anti-hedonistic principle during voting hours to shopping malls, gigaplex movie houses, computer cafes, opium dens and assisted-living bingo games. To give fresh life to moribund teenage voting, suspend college classes and all other forms of entertainment. Let TV screens go dark, talk shows fall silent and radio stations play dirges. There should be nothing to compete with the fun of getting out of the house to vote.

Do these solutions seemed Draconian? No more than suspending the First Amendment by limiting campaigns to a few weeks. A threat to democracy requires drastic action.

Imagine no leisure activity in Florida on Election Day, with beaches deserted, Disney World empty and everybody out of the pool. God knows who would win, but democracy would triumph in a blaze of turnout.

William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment originally appeared.