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Pure Onsense

Vote Or...Don't

Scott Zuke

(Sept, 2010)  A new election cycle means itís time to roll out the old standby public service announcements of why everyone should vote and how they may become informed voters. However, this is not that announcement. Instead, Iíd like to discuss when itís okay not to vote, and why it seems being an informed voter is hopelessly difficult.

First, letís talk about voter apathy and the conventional knowledge that says itís on the rise. Being in my early 20s I am keenly aware of this argument, as my generation is a popular target for accusations of laziness and is subjected to condescending campaigns such as Vote Or Die. Undergraduate students at typical liberal arts institutions know that every lifestyle under the sun may be tolerated and celebrated there, but to choose not to vote is a sin worthy of the strongest scorn from oneís peers.

However, if thereís ever a time in oneís span of voting age when casting the ballot is not particularly important, isnít it college? Most students are away from their voting districts, cut off from local political issues. Few earn enough to be paying taxes. Basic needs are covered, and most other problems can be addressed internally within the school. In short, college students have little at stake in most elections. Many young adults are in a similar position, just beginning their life in the community and not yet fully invested in its political workings.

Rather than to laziness, much of voter apathy, regardless of age group or socio-economic standing, can probably be attributed to many of those citizens being content with the political status quo. If you can live your life to your satisfaction, without running into roadblocks that only government is able to address, then why interfere with a system that is already working for you? The old "If it ainít broke, donít fix it" philosophy.

To consciously choose not to vote itself constitutes a vote in favor of maintaining the system as is. The only time there is a problem with someone not voting then, is if they have cause to complain about their political situation and still fail to exercise their voting right. But how frequently does this really occur? When things get bad enough on a wide level, voter turnout rises, indicating that voter apathy is perhaps a self-correcting mechanism of our democratic system. The 2008 presidential election, for example, had the largest turnout of eligible voters since the 1960s. The fact that everyone is able and entitled to vote is really more important than whether or not they actually do.

One might argue, however, that more people would vote if they realized the extent to which bad government policies either are affecting them now without their knowledge or will harm them in the future. Thus we come to the issue of uninformed voters.

We count our votes as precious, delicate things, into which we put a great amount of effort to solidify and defend our whole political philosophy. But because it is still just one vote amid a multitude, we fear that it will be nullified by someone making their decision casually or based on irrelevant factors. How does one place a value on the quality of a vote, though, when there are so many things we consider about a candidate before arriving at it? I can think of five such factors just starting with the letter Ďpí: Personality, Party platform, Promises, Past experience, and Principles. How does one order and balance these things against each other? How can we judge how other voters do so for themselves? And how many of these things can be believed when looking through the fog of campaign year strategizing anyway?

If being an informed voter means knowing exactly what youíll get if your candidate is elected, I would submit that those citizens who automatically vote for incumbents while ignoring election year campaigning are, ironically, the only informed voters out there, for theyíre the only ones who have a reasonable basis for their expectations. Every other candidate is as good as a wildcard, since campaign promises and platforms are usually worthless. If we find ourselves disappointed because a winning candidate fails to follow through on a campaign promise, itís likely less the fault of the candidate and more the fault of the voters for erroneously believing the promise was achievable in political reality. (President Obamaís campaign promise to go through the federal budget "line by line" was always one that struck me as blatantly implausible, but he repeated it often anyway.)

What this all comes down to is that I have a slightly cynical suspicion that "get out the vote" movements often boil down to less noble goals than they proclaim. Putting on a facade of neutrality, they energize the youth vote, which doesnít have much personal stake in the election, in the hopes of harvesting votes for whatever side the movements are funded by or favor.

As for us, how often do we complain about uninformed voters and really just mean "voters who came to a different decision than we did"? That is, is this an observable trend, or is it just a dismissive and uncharitable way of grouping the roughly 50% of the electorate that supposedly chose wrong? Estimating the number of actual uninformed voters is like estimating how many "welfare queens" truly exist: weíll assume whatever number suits our argument, perhaps go to the trouble of citing anecdotal evidence, and then overemphasize their prevalence until all sight of reality is lost.

What I am left with after these considerations is an even simpler formulation of a public service announcement than those with which I started: be a responsible citizen. Responsible citizens will be aware of how certain levels of government do or do not impact their lifestyle, and if they have cause to do so, they will exercise their right to vote, letting their cause be their guide to finding the candidate best able to satisfy that need. If you are feeling such a cause, hopefully the following pages in this issue will help you get off to a good start in making your decisions.

Read other article by Scott Zuke