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Will Sept. 11 patriotism spur voter turnout? Some groups are trying to tap
By Brooke Donald, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — An image flashes of firefighters draping an American flag over the side of the Pentagon. An announcer says: "Dreamers live it. Heroes die for it. All the freedom, all the promise, all the power is in your hands. Use it. Vote."
It's a television ad put out by Ohio's secretary of state, part of a get-out-the-vote campaign by election officials and interest groups hoping to use patriotic feelings a year after the terrorist attacks as a remedy for chronically low voter turnout.
"Traditional appeals to patriotism normally aren't very effective, but I think this year there's going to be a lot of self-reflecting around September and there may be an impact," said Kay Albowicz, communications director at the National Association of Secretaries of State.
"The attacks made people want to do something," she said.
Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope agreed.
"We all need to re-engage in politics, blending the new volunteerism and the new patriotism into a new democracy," he said.
The Sierra Club is running ads in a dozen states saying that since Sept. 11 more people have sought solace in wild places and now have the opportunity at the ballot box to protect those places -- and demonstrate their patriotism.
"Land of the red, white and blue, where we treasure wilderness and celebrate spacious skies. We all care about our country. Now we need candidates who'll care for our country," the ads say.
One test of the effectiveness of such appeals will come Sept. 10, when citizens in 12 states and the District of Columbia will vote in primaries, a day before the one-year anniversary of the attacks. The general election is Nov. 5.
So far this year, the impact does not seem to be there. Voting has remained lackluster, according to a report by the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
In the first 16 states that had statewide primaries in both major parties, turnout averaged 16.2 percent of the voting-age population, down from 17.6 percent in 1998 and 33.2 percent in 1966, according to the committee. Turnout for primary elections is normally feeble, especially when the White House is not at stake.
"Unfortunately, it's going to take more than patriotic appeals for people to vote even in a time of crisis," said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
Still, Albowicz's group, which represents the nation's top state elections officials, recently began a voter drive in all 50 states.
"Do it for your country. Do it for your community," said Maine Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky at the launch of the "America Votes" campaign.
Another group, Freedom's Answer, will send high school students into their communities to ask for vote pledges from teachers, parents and neighbors. They will make the point that voting sends a message that "our great democracy remains unshaken by 9/11," said communications director Betsy White.
In contrast, both political parties, sensitive to criticism that they would be using the attacks for political gain, will not use the subject in their voter drives.
"That may be a good thing for secretaries of state to do but the Democratic Party wants to give people a reason to vote, we don't want to just tell people to vote," said party spokesman Bill Buck.
Others agree, and even say the state officials will have a tough time with such a strategy.
"People don't want to see Sept. 11 as a sales tool, whether you're selling cars, air conditioning or democracy," said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University communications professor.
"Issues that don't differentiate your party from the other aren't motivating to voters," he added. "You don't have a lot of politicians who think apple pie causes problems in America."
"You have to talk about issues," said GOP spokesman Jim Dyke. "You can't just say the word patriotism and expect people to go to the polls."