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On primary day, they'll elect to not vote

Email|Print| Text size + By Marc Larocque
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2008

Apathy isn't the only reason why people don't vote.

When voters in Massachusetts and 23 other states caucus or go to the polls on Super Tuesday this week, a small cross section of Bostonians will boycott this revered ritual of democracy - precisely because they are concerned.

They say they've lost hope in the political system, or believed it to be bunk to begin with. They disdain all the get-out-the-vote rhetoric, from the guilt-inducing "it's a civic duty" to the confrontational "vote or die."

The academics have a name for these nonvoters - the Irritables - so named in a study for the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University because they are disenchanted by the electoral process.

Take Shekela Farmer from Dorchester, who plans to arrive at a polling station only to pass out fliers and raise a stink about what she calls the "big gimmick."

"I don't want to be yelling or seem like I'm angry," said Farmer, "but I have a heavy voice and I get excited."

For Farmer, 39, it will be her first nonvote. She said she's voted since she was of age, and even campaigned last fall for perennial candidate Althea Garrison, whose City Council run ended in the primaries. After years of protesting issues like inner-city mortgage schemes and illegal immigration, piping up at civic meetings, and sending letters to the pols, Farmer now says she finds all politicians unapproachable - even Garrison.

"People want to say I'm crazy," she said. "They say we fought for this, and no matter what, keep voting. But politicians have their hand in the cookie jar. I'm a good person. Even when I was a little girl, I wasn't a punk."

According to a 2000 nationwide survey of 1,028 nonvoters by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy, one in four nonvoters - 26 percent - said they do not participate due to dissatisfaction with politics and politicians.

Jessica Hitch falls into another category, the 25 percent of all nonvoters that said they are not angry but taken aback by the campaign trail drama, the constant drone of election ads, and the sense that candidates are beholden to special-interest groups.

Hitch, 22, a Boston University graduate and dorm manager, was visiting with four friends in Allston when the topic turned to the big decision, and an argument ensued over who deserved their vote: Barack Obama or Ron Paul.

"I just told them it was silly," Hitch said. "Voting seems like such an easy thing, but it's ballooned into a soap opera. This current sort of American election process seems like a huge distracter."

Better, she said, to spend all that time and energy volunteering to help people.

Raised in Texas in a family that strongly believed that voting matters, Hitch did not always feel this way. But after graduating from BU, she started working at the Lucy Parsons Center, a radical bookstore and anarchist collective in the South End. She stopped buying jeans from retailers and started buying only from thrift stores. She got rid of her television.

"The electoral system, with the parties and the candidates, serves to divide people," she said. "I think everybody has more in common than you think. For the people in power, it would be dangerous for everybody to realize how much they have in common."

Thomas Patterson, who conducted that widely hailed Shorenstein Center study, dubbed the Vanishing Voter Project, said that the US public's faith in government has ebbed and flowed through the years.

"The '50s, early '60s, there was more trust that American institutions are the best in the world and function for the betterment," Patterson said.

He said there were anarchist protests during the Vietnam War, unlike today, but the Iraq War has really torn at the public confidence in the government.

Still, he said, "voting is the instrument of democracy for the mass public. Maybe there will be a new society some day with a new way of registering public preferences, but this is what we have. It certainly isn't perfect. But it does make a difference when the public goes to the polls."

Neil Berman, a 53-year-old lawyer based in Somerville, would disagree, as he always has.

It was during a Greek civics class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1976, when his teacher said the students were lucky to be able to vote in America, that Berman, a self-proclaimed socialist, first spoke up.

"I argued with the teacher that he was misleading the students," Berman said. "It's allowing you to think you are making decisions, when the truth is you have no control. The two-party system is trying to get you to shut up."

Berman's advice: Stay home, delegitimize the government, and work from the outside for change.

"Those people are idiots," scoffed Avi Green, executive director of MassVote, a nonpartisan voter education organization, referring to anti-voters. "The reality is that elected officials don't learn anything from people that abstain."

But for some of the Irritables, it's not that simple. Shesha Carvajal, a 79-year-old resident of Saint Cecilia's House in the Fenway, arrived at her current nonvoting stance only after a lifetime of activism on two continents.

Born here to a family of Russian Jews who had fled the Bolshevism of their homeland, Carvajal was politically active even as a teenager, joining socialist groups that backed candidates. But it was her marriage to a Chilean man, and long periods spent living in South America - she was in Chile when it suffered its own Sept. 11, a 1973 coup that toppled a democratically elected government - that led her to years of work as a human rights activist, both here and in Chile.

Carvajal voted against George W. Bush in 2000, but after eight years of his presidency, she believes that was her last vote. On Tuesday, she will sit it out.

"I hardly think it matters. It'll take far greater movement of conscious people for real change. . . . It's a somber outlook, I know. Perhaps you will see changes; I don't think I will."

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