Project Wonderful

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Enfranchished doesn't always mean empowered.

A California poll shows that voters are increasingly less informed.

I will let you in on a little secret. Anyone who has ever worked on a campaign for an extended period of time has secretly and fleetingly wished there existed some kind of intelligence/information test for voting. Of course we would never advocate for such a test because of the obvious non-democratic and somewhat Jim Crow-y implications, but the temptation is there.

It is infuriating to sit with cold hard facts about a candidate's voting record and espoused principles while over the phone a voter tells you s/he is voting against your candidate and her/his own self interest, because "I just don't get a good feeling about him."

In defense of the uneducated voter, there is so much information out there, that it is difficult to know what to believe. Even the most politically active among us have one or two issues we use as a litmus test because you can't agree with your candidate on everything. Even after your candidate has been elected and served, it is impossible to know what might have been otherwise. And there have been times when a voter's gut reaction has turned out to be somewhat prescient. (I'm still kicking myself over John Edwards). In the end, it is about who you want answering the red phone.

Still, to me, this article highlights the fact that enfranchisement is not enough. As my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, once said "A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user." When I advocate for your right to vote, I am also advocating for your right to use your vote like an idiot. That's part of what democracy is. That's why we can't stop with voter registration and access. An ill informed vote has little power behind it. As the article points out,
"It's almost as if a quarter of the electorate is really not there for most of the elections...The leadership tends to follow the whims of this smaller and smaller segment who are indeed following what's going on. But that segment may not be reflective of the whole. That has a bearing on politics."
True empowerment is about having the tools to make an informed decision and the confidence that your decisions will make a difference. This comes from government accountability, community activism and yes, some initiative on the part of the voter. In an age where voters get their information increasingly from niche websites and social media, we have to reconsider how we reach out to them. We have to find a way of communicating that voting is not just about the act itself but the weight you put behind it. The more engaged you are, the more your vote matters. Knowledge, as they say, is power.

Articles like this make me both hopeful and intimidated. On the one hand, there is so much potential to be harnessed. On the other, it highlights the age old dilemma: to empower more voters elected officials need to take them seriously, for elected officials to take them seriously, voters need to be empowered.

You guys, this stuff is hard! But as Theodore Roosevelt also said "It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things."

Peace, Love, and Presidents,

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