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Susan Estrich: California’s Whitman Neglects Her Civic Duty

The gubernatorial candidate can't be bothered to vote, but she wants us to vote for her?

On my way to work this morning, I heard not one but two advertisements urging me to vote for former eBay CEO Meg Whitman as the next governor of California. The ads touted her decades of experience working for such companies as Disney and Hasbro before taking the helm at eBay in 1998 as its first CEO. The pitch was that California needs someone who understands business and job creation as its next chief executive.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich

Hard to disagree with that. And as one who has for decades urged women, Republican or Democrat, to seek higher office, I have to say that it’s about time California had a woman governor.

But shouldn’t she also be a good citizen?

According to a detailed analysis by the Sacramento Bee, the facts of which remain unchallenged by the Whitman campaign, Whitman didn’t bother to vote while she was earning all those qualifications to be governor. Not in Ohio or Massachusetts or New Jersey or Rhode Island or anyplace else she lived from ages 18 to 46.

Reagan against Carter? That was a snoozer for Whitman.

Bush vs. Gore? Pass.

She didn’t vote for or against Bill Clinton. Yawn.

Senators, governors, mayors — none of them managed to capture her interest long enough to say yea or nay. Initiatives? I can’t even begin to list what she missed.

As a matter of fact, she didn’t even bother to register to vote until 2002. And the next year, when nearly 9 million of us went to the polls — or just mailed in our permanent absentee ballots — for the recall election that put Arnold Schwarzenegger in office, well, she skipped that one, too.

Oh, and she didn’t decide she was a Republican in a state that limits primary voting to declared voters until 2007.

Whitman offers no excuse for her record of dereliction of civic duty. How could she? California is a state where checking a single box makes you a permanent absentee voter, where they send you the ballot way in advance and all you have to do is drop it in the mail. The parties outdo each other, and that is putting mildly, in “helping” people both register to vote and sign up to do it by mail. Voting, by any measure, is a whole lot easier than almost anything else Whitman has done in the past 30 years.

So why didn’t she bother?

Only she can answer that question, and I’m quite sure she won’t even try, since there really isn’t much to say. The irrefutable point is that she didn’t care. I find that unacceptable in someone who wants my vote.

As far as I know, her one vote would not, strictly speaking, have made the difference in any of the elections she missed. Economists will tell you that from the individual perspective, voting is a very inefficient thing to do with your time for just that reason. The Freakonomics folks tell a joke that illustrates the point: Two economists are embarrassed to have run into each other at the polls and quickly explain to each other that they are there only because their wives made them come.

Of course, if we all took that position, our democracy would fall apart. Whitman was counting on the rest of us to do what she couldn’t be bothered to do.

Whitman’s consistent failure to register, much less vote, reflects a decided lack of interest in public affairs and government that is odd, to say the least, in someone who now wants to be governor. Did she wake up one day with an insatiable interest in politics and government? Did it really take her until she was 51 to determine whether she was a Republican or a Democrat? Those are questions she is going to have to answer, repeatedly, as she seeks the Republican nomination against two highly qualified candidates. State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former Congressman Tom Campbell have both, according to the same reports, voted early and often in local, state and federal races.

But the more basic question is one of values. It’s about character, not how interested you are. I know lots of people who are as uninterested in politics as I am in the World Cup, but they vote. I know many people in jobs as tough as hers, living lives that are tougher still, but they vote. I have sent drivers to nursing homes to take men and women on their last legs to the polls, because it was important.

What does it say about Whitman that for all those years she couldn’t be bothered? What business does she have asking for our votes? She was not a good citizen.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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