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Voting our conscience

I had it pretty easy this election season. My e-mail box has been flooded these past several months with anguished messages from friends and family in other states who were trying to decided whether to vote for Ralph Nader. Here in the Tar Heel state, my choices were a lot simpler: Nader wasn't on the ballot and write-in votes for him weren't counted.

Loved ones in other places had more to wrestle with. Would a vote for Nader really be a vote for Bush? And if it were, how much would that matter? Was Nader really a force for third-party change--or just another media creation? As I listened to their arguments, I felt a bit like the Peanuts comic-strip character Lucy, sitting in her makeshift therapist's booth while Schroeder or Charlie Brown poured out their hearts to her. When they were done, all she usually said was "Five cents, please."

A longtime pal from Brooklyn wrote several days before the election that the arguments many progressives were making for Gore had just about pushed her into the Nader camp, because they were so fundamentally dishonest. It would be fine, she said, if lefties could admit that Gore isn't the least bit progressive, but if he wins, there is a chance we can have "a teeny bit of influence" versus nothing at all with Bush.

On the other side, there were messages from my dad and sister--both mental-health workers in New England--worrying about the dire consequences of a Bush victory for vulnerable populations. They found Nader's assertion that there was no real difference between Bush and Gore fundamentally heartless. For them, there was no doubt which candidate was the lesser of two evils. And those evils would be visited on real people with real faces and real needs.

I also got some amazing forwarded email: a letter from Gloria Steinem, outlining the top 10 reasons she was voting for Gore; a chain email letter to Nader asking him to step down rather than contribute to a Bush win; and a Nader endorsement from an alternative newspaper in Massachusetts that urged voters to "forget the nightmare" being peddled about how much worse Bush would be than the Clinton/Gore administration already had been on social-justice issues, and instead, "Vote your dreams."

In the end, all the cyberferment just made me feel left out. My Brooklyn friend told me she was happy to be conflicted because it was a sign she was more engaged in this presidential election than any other in memory. I couldn't quite muster the same emotion, here in North Carolina where the ballot was lesser in many ways. We didn't even have the goods needed to trade votes with Nader backers in states where the stakes for his candidacy were livelier. Well, maybe next time.

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