Giving Cold Shoulder to Hot Election

Times Staff Writer

There is little about the world that eludes Steven Kates, a personal trainer in Santa Monica.

A UCLA graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a year of law school at Pepperdine, he worries about his diet, his bills and terrorism. The gym he created is wired with state-of-the-art TV consoles supercharged with TiVo. He recorded all three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, and replays them for clients slogging on the elliptical exercise machine.

But Kates will not be voting next week. It has nothing to do with apathy, religion or logistics. In fact, on his daily run from his Brentwood apartment to the ocean, he passes his designated polling place. He just won’t be stopping there on election day.


What infuriates his friends, acquaintances and Westside clientele, Kates says, are his reasons why.

Fascinated with science, particularly physics -- he loves author Stephen Hawking -- he believes he should approach voting the way he thinks a scientist would undertake an investigation: with preparation, research, observation.

“I think voting is like surgery,” he says. “I wouldn’t go and perform surgery and wing it.”

As the presidential campaign hurtles toward its climax, entreaties to vote crop up everywhere, from radio station websites to yogurt carton lids to TV public service ads such as the one in which actress Jennifer Aniston chides young women: “Would you let someone else choose your clothes, your friends? What about your husband?”

Polling experts expect that the number of Americans who do vote probably will set a record high this year, exceeding the 114 million who went to the polls to choose among Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and H. Ross Perot in 1992. Still, about 40% of the country’s voting-age citizens probably will not show up.

As one of that number, Kates, 48, has reasons for letting others choose his president, he says. For one, he hasn’t read enough or learned enough about the issues or the candidates.


“I’m not an authority,” Kates says. “I’m trying to make decisions based on this trickling of information that comes a little bit from what I see in the background on TV and a little bit from what I see when I sporadically grab a newspaper.”

Between running his business, exercising and having a social life, “there isn’t a lot of time left,” he says. “You have to pick and choose where you’re going to put your effort.” When he has time to read, he’d rather pore over a book about the origins of the universe than the latest article on Sen. John Kerry or President Bush.

The words he does hear from the candidates are far from the clear, straightforward answers, he says, that will get him to the voting booth. Until he hears them, he’s boycotting the election. “It’s not something you do after you go for a run and just go in: ‘Hmm, I think I’ll just vote for this person,’ and ‘Hmm, I’ll do the best I can,’ ” he says. “I stopped doing it because I don’t feel like I have enough information.”

Kates sits straddling a workout bench in the tiny bungalow that he converted into a gym. Two rows of free weights are lined up on the polished wood floor. An array of machines fills the rest of the room. The gym is quiet except for the whir of a fan in the adjacent room, where the last client of the day is walking the treadmill.

Years of exercise and dieting have whittled his muscular body to a compact, sinewy frame. Kates says he approaches training and other aspects of his life with a certain obsessiveness. “My personality is such that it’s all or nothing,” he says.

His gray zip-up turtleneck reveals a faded tattoo of a dead mouse on his neck, a remnant of his past obsession with skin art.


Kates hardly fits the profile of the disenfranchised. A small-business owner, he is affluent, college-educated and sophisticated. So are his friends and clients. He’s not embarrassed to tell them he won’t vote. They, in turn, are not shy about chastising Kates between biceps curls.

“I think it’s pretty lame,” says David Berg, 23. “We have arguments about it.”

So far, the lobbying has backfired. “The more people push, the more I don’t want to do it,” Kates says. “And it’s not rebelliousness.”

The most strident, he says, want him to vote a certain way.

“They’re all experts and they all are positive that there is some giant conspiracy between the current administration and the crashing of these jets into the World Trade Center, and it’s all linked to some oil conspiracy,” he says. “It’s very scary to me -- these are people who couldn’t possibly know.”

Based on what he does know about the candidates, Kates is conflicted. He thinks Bush is a “tough guy” on terrorism, and he likes that. But Kates also supports legal abortion, believes gays ought to be able to marry and backs stem cell research. Yet, his instinct tells him his business will do better with Bush in the White House.

“I’d love to see a hybrid president,” he muses. “I’d love to see a Bush-Kerry humanoid.”

And, like so many of his fellow citizens, he hungers for straightforward answers.

“For example, when I’m watching a debate, I feel it would be so simple to get us some really fabulous hard simplified information on where candidates stand,” he says.

“One of the things I loved in the debate is when Bush gets up and says, ‘There will be no draft.’ That’s such a simple strong statement. You rarely hear politicians speak in simple terms where you can determine something clearly.... I would like to see someone get up there and say, ‘In my administration, I don’t like the idea of stem cell research, it’s not going to happen.’ And then have the next guy get up there and say, ‘It is going to happen if I get in.’ ”


Sidney Verba, a professor of government at Harvard University and a longtime researcher on voting, sympathizes with Kates. “He’s not so weird,” Verba says. “There are lots of people who don’t vote for lots of reasons.... He seems to care.” And, Verba says, Kates “correctly points out that everybody is trying to spin the information in one direction or another and therefore he wants to throw up his hands.”

But Verba notes that few people outside of rarefied policy wonk circles would reach Kates’ goal of perfect understanding.

“Most people would not make his argument that ‘I really don’t understand the issues so I won’t vote,’ ” Verba says. “I mean, I don’t understand a lot of the issues the candidates talk about. No one really understands how Social Security is financed.... Even the more educated people in society who pay attention to these issues, including professors of government at Harvard, don’t know everything.”

Kates can’t remember when he last voted -- some time after 1978, the year he graduated, and before 1992, the year that ushered in the Clinton era.

It’s difficult to be erased from voter rolls, said Deborah Wright, the executive liaison for the registrar of voters for Los Angeles County. But Wright could find no record of Kates.

Tell him people might think he’s being blithe about a civil right for which men and women sacrificed their lives and he nods. He’s heard this before. “I will always view it as the right to vote or not vote,” he says.


Even Kates concedes that the number of people who are as tutored as he thinks all voters should be is “infinitesimally small.”

So why not just vote?

“I’m willing to say let the randomness decide,” Kates says. “Yes, it’s true I’m letting all these people that maybe are even less qualified than I am make the decision, but to me it’s letting this mathematical randomness [occur]. I’m comfortable with that.”

Of course, one reason he can afford not to vote is because he’s comfortable with either candidate in the White House. “If there were a psychopath and a reasonable person up there,” Kates says, “I’d be the first guy in line to vote.”