Commentary: Must-see election perfect time for premiere

Tuesday marks first election since becoming citizen

Tuesday will mark the first time I'm voting in a U.S. presidential election. No, I haven't trimmed 10 (or 20) years off my age to better fit in Hollywood or undergone a sudden civic awakening. I was sworn in as an American citizen two years ago.

And while I'd been champing at the bit sitting on the sidelines, I realize now it was kind of convenient. When things went awry the past eight years, I could say: "Well, I can't vote, I'm not responsible for the mess we're in."

Sitting it out is easy, voting is hard. But it's the right thing to do.

I had just started college in Bulgaria when I took part in my first national elections 20 years ago (so much for concealing my age). The landlord came banging on the door at 7 a.m. on a Sunday (the day elections in most countries are held). That was a horrific wake-up call for a first-year college student after a long Saturday night. Under the communist regime, not only was voting mandatory, but there was a race among the sections of the cities which one would finish first. The poor citizens who procrastinated and didn't cast their ballots at the crack of dawn were reprimanded.

I have no idea who I voted for that morning. That's not from the hangover; it just didn't matter. There was only one ballot, and the act of voting consisted of taking that ballot and putting it in an envelope. The biggest act of rebellion back then was stuffing an empty envelope in the ballot box, which didn't matter either because the results of every election were always the same: 99.9% voter turnout, with the winners getting 99.9% of the vote.

Well, as Forrest Gump's mom used to say, "Life is like a box of chocolates." Ours happened to be all dark and bitter back there.

But if life is like a box of chocolates, presidential elections in the U.S. are a lot like primetime television.

In both, winning the popular vote is nice for bragging rights -- ask Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and CBS -- but doesn't necessarily gets you the presidency or the biggest upfront haul.

In the final stage of the 2000 election, it was the Electoral College that allowed a candidate with fewer overall votes like George W. Bush to defeat Gore. In the primaries this year, a complicated combination of direct votes and caucuses propelled Barack Obama past Clinton.

And in television, it's all about the younger demographics, with total viewers -- or programs' overall popularity -- almost a thing of the past.

Both presidential couples are spread equally between the viewer categories -- each boasts one member of the sought-by-advertisers 18-49 demographic (Obama and Sarah Palin) and one of the Andy Rooney constituency (John McCain and Joe Biden).

But the similarities between presidential elections and primetime television end when it comes to overall ratings performance this year. Tens of millions took part in the primaries; there hasn't been this much enthusiasm and broad-based participation in the election process in decades. Meanwhile, broadcast TV is suffering ratings declines across the board as viewers are tuning out in droves.

Still, even with the unprecedented interest in today's presidential election, no one expects anything near the 99.9% turnout I grew up with.

It's especially hard to get motivated in California, where every important event -- including the elections -- feels three-hour tape-delayed, so that by the time you vote, things are pretty much over.

But think about the couple of newly minted American citizens living in India who traveled 9,300 miles to cast their votes in another state where the outcome seems predetermined by the polls: New York.

Last week, I rode in a taxi driven by a sixtysomething Romanian immigrant. As it always happens between old neighbors (Romania and Bulgaria share a border in the Balkans), the conversation quickly turned to politics.

"What was so wrong about communism," he said. "There was no crime, no greed. As for democracy -- we had one candidate to vote for, here there are two. No big difference."

Actually, it is a big difference. So as scared as I am whether I'll be making the right choices on the long list of candidates and propositions, I'll vote. Please do the same.

And for Pete's sake, watch television. There is some pretty darn good stuff on it.
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