On Voting

I was so relieved to see this in my feedreader: a Racialicious post called “On Forcing Myself to Vote.” In it, Latoya Peterson describes the malaise that sets in when a thoughtful, industrious person begins to wonder if there is any point in voting in U.S. elections:

So wait, we vote them back in and…then demand change? After they already got what they needed? That looks like an exchange based on trust, and trust has been broken. It’s true, Obama and the Dems have done a lot while in office. But a lot of these things were compromised, and a Democratic majority seems to have done little to push the most progressive reforms into law.

What I want to say in response is not an argument against voting, but rather an examination of what has gone so horribly wrong that conscientious citizens feel hopeless about the voting process.

Problem #1: You need ungodly amounts of money to run for almost any office.

I know upper middle class people who can’t afford to run for city council. Does that give you some idea how expensive it is to run for a higher office than that? To run, you must either

  • Be so well off you really can’t appreciate the problems involved in struggling to make ends meet, no matter how fine your intentions, or
  • Promise so many favors in exchange for contributions that you’ll spend all your time in office doing what your contributors want instead of what you believe in.

Either way, you’re not going to be able to act on anything that doesn’t do more for the “haves” than the “have nots.” The game is rigged. Some well-written campaign finance reform would fix this. Maybe a low set limit on what candidates can spend, with a limit to how long campaigns can run, and/or maybe a limit to how many commercials and tours and fliers candidates can utilize. Which plan would work is hardly the point: it’ll never happen because the very people who are benefiting from this way of doing things are the only ones who can make that happen.

Voting, unfortunately, just shows them this system is working. The higher the turnout, the less chance they will ever find an incentive to change it. And while abysmal turnout might indeed get the message across, at least loudly enough for the press to speculate about it, I can’t see how it would damage the right candidates in the right way to get them to change anything.

Problem #2: Your first concern after getting into office is getting re-elected.

Candidates spend the majority of their time in office not doing the stuff that’s required of their office, but planning their next run for the same office again. It’s not about getting stuff done; it’s about making us think they got stuff done and they’ll get more stuff done. Most of their energy goes into this giant public relations spin. Again, some limitations on campaigning could be the solution. Maybe some restructuring of how elections happen.

But you can’t use your vote to change this, because everyone’s doing it. If you do come across one who’s not doing it, yay, but she’s not going to get re-elected. Because of our third problem:

Problem #3: Voters don’t think.

I’ll never forget how appalled I was ten years ago to hear voters on CNN shrug and complain that Gore wasn’t so affable while Bush “just seems like somebody you could go have a beer with.” Let’s be blunt here: letting everyone over eighteen vote is a terrible idea if people are going to vote that unthinkingly. U.S. people seem to think, by and large, that it’s elitist to apply critical thinking. To know Africa is a continent and not the country Sarah Palin thinks it is. To be able to name the fifty states and understand how the electoral college works.

This is not elitism. This is your duty as a citizen: to be as informed and educated about your country as your brain will allow you to be.

But this is the one part of the voting procedure we might actually have some power to change. By speaking out – to acquaintances, on blogs, whatever – we can contribute toward creating an atmosphere in which it is shameful to vote without thinking. To be profoundly uninformed about your own country, let alone the rest of the world. If enough of us speak up, and more people join us, eventually you hit a critical mass, and suddenly it’s not cool to be ignorant anymore. It wasn’t cool in the 80s – trends swing every ten to twenty years, so this is an achievable goal.

Problem #4: Voting is all most people do.

My biggest pet peeve about voting is that it gives people the illusion their work as a citizen is done when they step out of the booth. Most people seem to agree there are no good candidates anymore – voting is about choosing the lesser evil. Yet they shrug and vote, and think, “Oh, well – I did all I could.”

Well, no, you didn’t. Stop patting yourself on the back and think. Where’s the real power? When an election chooses between two deeply corrupt candidates, who decides what the winner will do in office? Lobbyists and campaign financiers. Lobbyists know it’s not important who wins. What matters is: who’s running the winner in office?

It could be us, if people would stop being apathetic long enough to get serious about grassroots lobbying. And protests. And using the democracy of the internet to point out what’s wrong with the democracy of government. We actually do have some power. It’s just not where you were told to look. Sometimes you have to stop trusting authority figures and actually think for yourself.

Whatever you think of voting in general, it is the beginning of a citizen’s empowerment, not the end. If voting isn’t cutting it anymore, don’t just dutifully keep voting (or rebelliously stop voting) and say, “Oh, well, nothing I can do.” Find something you can do. Influence a few hearts and minds. Speak up for your beliefs. Change the culture, and the government must follow.

Comments

  1. Anne says

    What I think might be an interesting route is having a system where no one can be reelected. If there’s no reason to fear being not reelected, perhaps there would be less pandering and more promise fulfilling, which could actually mean that we get who we think we voted for in office instead of a weird compromise of that person. But I’m just thinking out loud. Well, not out loud, but you get what I mean.

    Also, yes, I agree with you. Great dissection of the process.

  2. toto says

    btw

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill preserves the Electoral College, while assuring that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election.

    Every vote, everywhere would be equal and counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    Now 2/3rds of the states and voters are ignored — 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. The current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, and not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution, ensure that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Voter turnout in the “battleground” states has been 67%, while turnout in the “spectator” states was 61%. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes — 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

  3. Scarlett says

    We actually have compulsory voting in Australia which means about 80% of the population is split 40-40 between the two major parties and the election result is based on the remaining 20% that we call ‘swinging voters’. It basically comes down to one party gets to stay in power until they so thoroughly fuck things up that those swinging voters go for the other guys and the cycle continues.

    Re: ignorance. Our last election ended in a hung vote, which means that neither party had enough votes for an outright victory. (One party needs 51% of the seats to win an outright victory; I forget the exact numbers but it was something like 40% to one party, 45% to the other and the remaining 15% split between the minor parties.) I was floored by the fact that I was the only person who knew what this meant – that no-one could claim an outright victory – and I study freaking Library Information Services!

    OK, that’s the end of my rant. But I agree that there needs to be a limit to what kind of money can be spent on an election but more importantly, a greater understanding of exactly how voting works.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Are Jehovah’s Witnesses forced to vote in Australia, or is an exception made for them? (It’s against their religion.)

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s very interesting. I’m not quite clear on how it preserves the Electoral College, since this seems to negate its sole purpose. But then I’ve been in favor of dumping that old system as long as I can remember.

    And of course, this would only alter one tiny aspect of one office’s elections, so it certainly doesn’t solve all the issues with voting (for other office, for props, etc.). But thanks for sharing.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    I guess the argument against that would be: when you get a good ‘un, you can’t put her back in office for a second round, and may have to settle for a lesser candidate instead. But the way things are now, we just don’t ever get good candidates, so it might be an improvement, LOL! I’m only half-joking. :D

  7. Scarlett says

    Don’t know specifically but I *believe* there are a few circumstances where you can argue your right not to vote. I’ll look into that, I’d never heard of it before.

  8. Scarlett says

    OK I looked it up – apparantly religion is a valid reason not to vote. For a while I also informally voted because I didn’t like either party, and you can also just not show up and cop a fine.

  9. Anne says

    Yeah, I half-laughed! ;D At times like this I go back and watch the episode in South Park about voting for two equally awful candidates and wallow in despair at the state of humanity. (I can’t decide if I’m half-joking or dead-serious when I say that and that makes me sad.)

  10. Anne says

    Compulsory voting seems weird to me. (Not as weird as how few people in the USA vote, though.) Does this backfire? I mean, do people just go to vote and select their choices randomly just to avoid the fine? (And that makes me wonder if that’s worse than people not voting at all, and I can’t decide.)

  11. Scarlett says

    Well I know there’s always fierce competition over who goes first on the ballot because of the amount of donkey votes, when voters just go 1-2-3-4-5 down the line or tick one at random. (We have a fairly complicted system; you can either vote for every.single.condidate in order of preference or you can vote for one and let them distribute their votes should they be knocked out as they see fit.) So the candidate at the top is in the best position to benefit from donkey voting.

    And from what I understand, there’s also a lot of informal voting, where the ballot has been filled correctly so can’t be counted. Sometimes it’s an accident done by someone who doesn’t understand and sometimes it’s deliberate done by someone expressing their right *not* to vote, which is what I did for about five years before deciding it was better to pick a side, even if it was based on who I DISliked the least as opposed to LIKED the most.

    Oddly enough, while they’re pretty strict about enforcing the no-vote=fine rule, they seem to be pretty lax about enforcing the enroll-by-the-time-you’re-eighteen rule. My brother got through two federal elections and a few state elections before deciding he felt like voting this time around and no-one questioned why he was only just now registering at, like, 23.

  12. DragonLord says

    I think that at least one of your houses (senate or congress) should be “job for life” types, as at that point they don’t need to worry about being re-elected, and so can focus on what’s actually good for the country rather than what’s good for their re-election.

  13. Scarlett says

    But wouldn’t that then encourage apathy and even corruption – meh, they can’t chuck me out, I’ll do what benefits me the most.

  14. Raeka says

    Ehhhh, that would make me nervous, as it would make it damn hard to get rid of people who were behind the times, etc :( It would also make the sort of wild party-swings seen by people getting sick of Republicans/Democrats next to impossible, and I just think it would make the system a helluva lot less flexible in general.

    So far I’m cautiously supportive of the ‘one term only’ rule proposed above.

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    I don’t think that’s worked well for the Supreme Court. I know it’s not an elected office, but I mean, we’ve got a man who overtly sexually harassed a number of women helping decide top-level issues of law, and we can’t get rid of him by any means other than, well, assassination. I don’t think “job for life” is ever a good move.

  16. DragonLord says

    By having the house un-elected, it could be picked based on ability rather than popularity, and if you had strong laws about corruption and such like, so that there were ways to get rid of corrupt people. And Job for life could just be something like a 20 year term or some other very long term period.

    If you want a working example of what I’m talking about look at the UK parliamentary system (house of commons makes the laws and is elected, house of lords checks the laws they make and is currently not elected, and the queen signs them and makes them legal). As the house of lords doesn’t actually make the laws the fact that they may be behind the times doesn’t really matter, but they are very much concerned with whether the new laws are actually good for the country, give to much power to various parties, etc. And they can’t be beaten with the big stick of re-election. Equally there is a process in place to bypass the house of lords if they are being intractable.

  17. Scarlett says

    My understanding of US history was that it was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that no man stand for president more than twice, then FDR got himself elected four times and that made that into law.

    I ddn’t like the idea that people can be elected over and over again. We actually have that in Australia where the voting is a bit different and even then… I’ve studied history and the ‘yes, man’ attitude tends to lead to messers Hitler, Stalin and Tse Tung.

  18. Azzy says

    You may only be half-joking, but I agree. Which is better, having terrible politicians that serve multiple terms and do nothing, or having great politicians that, despite only getting one term, accomplish something?

    Maybe this problem could be solved some other way, like being able to get re-elected, but after a mandatory rest period. Like, okay, you served a term, you can run again in 8 years. Ideally, if you’re bad or mediocre, nobody is going to remember you after 8 years, but if you’re actually good, voters remember you. Ideally, mind you. I can’t be sure such a system would be viable in real life.

    I just don’t know. I live in Romania, where the political class is so corrupt, that the situation seems hopeless. I try to follow political news once in a while, and what happens is that I manage for a month or two, then I succumb to rage and despair. Our president is, as I’ve said before, an ignorant, childish, racist, violent, petty, xenophobic, mysoginistic, attention-whoring, corrupt drunkard who got re-elected only thanks to massive voter fraud (which everyone knew about and which he got away with because of a legal loophole). Someone once said Romania was a banana republic and the only protest I could muster to that was “But we don’t grow bananas!”. At this point, political apathy has become a method of preserving my mental health.

  19. GardenGoblin says

    Unfortunately, the current system is screwy, but there really isn’t a better option available because humans are morons.

    Short of finding some method of compelling people to actually think rationally before voting, there is no way to fix the system.

    Half the population has below average intelligence and likely there are many who are incapable of actually comprehending the long-range ramifications of various policies. These people get to vote.

    Plenty of people have follower mentalities and are sways by whoever can afford the flashiest lights, thus never actually thinking about the long-range ramifications of various policies. These people get to vote.

    Plenty of people have a ‘I’ve got mine, screw you’ mentality, and thus don’t give a shit about the long-range ramifications of various policies. They want an immediate benefit to them personally no matter the consequences. These people get to vote.

    Since no one will make me dictator for life and support my social-reform and education policy involving strategically placed electrodes, there isn’t a way to fix problems 2 and 3.

    I’d love to see a ‘common sense’ test administered and voting being a privilege rather than a right. But then the question is, who makes the test? How can we guarantee the test itself is unbiased?

    I know I come across and privileged with issue 1, but I do think in this case it is valid. Unfortunately, problems 2 and 3 would mean nobody would look out for the folks in issue 1, so it’s a catch 22.

    People suck.

  20. Jennifer Kesler says

    By having the house un-elected, it could be picked based on ability rather than popularity

    Uh, how? The queen has a job for life she didn’t get by promising powerful folks favors, and she appoints people to jobs for life. That makes sense. But when our presidents appoint people to the Supreme Court, they’re thinking in terms of re-elections and favors. Even if they’re on the second term, they still owe a lot of people a lot of stuff, and that factors in. I’m not saying your idea has no merit – I think it does. I’m just not seeing how to pop “jobs for life” somewhere into the US system without also overhauling the rest of it beyond recognition.

  21. Raeka says

    I’m also tempted to put forth some sort of ‘common sense’ test, or perhaps a test that ensures voters know some of the BASIC FACTS of issues they’re voting on, but like you said: who makes the test? How can we guarantee there wouldn’t be bias?

    On a slightly different topic: my high school required students to complete a one-semester Government course. I don’t recall exactly what I learned there, but I do recall liking it…and I was curious, did everyone elses’ high schools offer/require this? I don’t think it’s a federal requirement, but maybe it should be…? (Of course, there are already so many other problems with the education system, I feel bad adding another requirement to it…)

  22. Julian Morrison says

    The most important vote is the primary. There you’re a bigger fish in a much smaller pond, and you can choose between candidates who are spread out ideologically, rather than bunched up in the center.

  23. Anne says

    Haha, that’s so weird. I mean, USA voting is just as weird to me, but looking at different voting methods is so interesting!

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