Project Wonderful

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ask An Election Nerd: How Do I Know Who To Vote For?

If you've been disappointed that I haven't written a long blog post in a while, (horribly bad impression of a mafia accent) I got your long blog post right here! Seriously, I almost considered footnoting this thing. Below is a question that was submitted through my tumblr a while ago. I've gotten a couple of these, so I've decided to start an Ask An Election Nerd segment to my blog. If you would like to submit a question, email me at, or message me through tumblr. And away we go!

Dear Nancy,

I found your blog because a friend sent me a link to your Ryan Gossling Tumblr.

I am a 20something living in the Midwest in an important state in the world of elections—Ohio. I know people say my vote matters, but I don't know how to sort out who to vote for. Sometimes, I feel like my vote won't matter and that I shouldn't even vote if I don't put in the time to really vet the candidates, which seems nearly impossible.

I just need someone to lay it all out for me and build my confidence in my own personal voting process. Voting is a personal process right? Then why do I feel so crowded? I know I can't be the only one who feels this way. I want to do my civic duty to the best of my ability, I just don't know how.


Of all the reasons that someone would choose not to vote, this is the easiest for me to understand. When it comes to politics, truth is often in the eye of the beholder. There is a lot of information out there and I use the term "information" loosely. Campaigns, independent expenditures, and any pundit with a microphone are more than happy to tell you the truth as they see it, but even among the best intentioned (and I'm not implying that any of those groups are) there is room for reasonable debate. One thing I do not suggest is taking one of those "who should I vote for" quizzes online like this one, because you never know is behind them.(That may be a perfectly legitimate group, I just don't advise doing so as practice.) By simply choosing which stories to report news outlets are guilty of employing bias, plus there are candidate debates, rumors, gossip, advertising, forwarded emails from opinionated is really difficult to know what to believe.

Before we talk about how to choose a candidate, let's briefly discuss why it's important to vote even if you're confused. To begin with, whether we realize it or not, politics affects every one of us. When I was a field organizer I was unfailingly blown away by community members who told me they weren't going to vote because they weren't "political." You mean to tell me you're a doctor and you have no opinion on health care? You're a teacher and you don't care about education? You're religious and you don't care what happens to poor people? You're a woman (or related to one) and you have nothing to say about birth control? I'm not buying it.

Also, and cue the John Philip Sousa music, voting is a big part of what makes this country great. We were the first democracy to work in modern times and since then, the concept has pretty much flourished. Sure it's imperfect, but as Winston Churchill famously said, "Democracy is the worst form of government...except for all the others." Democracy keeps us safe, free from tyranny and exploitation, and able to advance better than any other system and it doesn't work unless people vote. (Churchill also said "the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter," but that's why we're here.) It's no coincidence that people have died for that very right. I'm not just talking about the Founding Fathers here, I'm including very real and recent examples in the Middle East and Africa. NB: When I talk about voting, I mean in free and fair elections, not ones rigged by a dictator.

So voting, important, got it, you're on board. On to how to choose. The good news is that because there's so much conflicting information, it's okay to pick and choose your sources. It's okay to discount some factors that other people might find important. Maybe you don't care that your candidate has cheated on her husband or about her record on the environment because you like what she has to say about debt reduction. It's also okay to choose someone who doesn't agree with you on everything. The only way to find someone who is lock step with you 100% on every issue is to run for office yourself. It's about finding a candidate who you feel best represents your values.

Below is a list of information narrowing techniques to help make the task of picking a candidate a little more manageable. Some work better for primaries, some for general elections and most can be used in concert with one another. Feel free to pick and choose and don't let the perfect (i.e. knowing EVERYTHING about your candidate which is nearly impossible) be the enemy of the good.

1) Go with your gut. My empirical experience has been, and I'm sure there's research to bear this out, that people usually pick a candidate based on their gut reaction and then come up with reasons to justify their decision later on. Most people have gotten so good at doing this, they don't even realize what they're doing. They'll rattle off a list of reasons why they support Newt Gingrich over Rick Santorum with great sincerity, never acknowledging even to themselves that they got these talking points from emails or discussion boards or NPR after they knew who they were supporting. As an operative this can be maddening. However, we have gut instincts for an evolutionary reason, because they work. As a field organizer, I was infuriated when people told me they weren't supporting John Edwards because 'they just didn't trust him,' but in the end that turned out to be... prescient. Watch a primary debate and the candidates are pretty similar on the issues, though they express themselves differently. Listen to your gut. Who do you trust? Who do you want answering the proverbial red phone at 2am? If you like a candidate and she makes you feel good about spending your vote on her, there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you're up front about it.

2)Call a lifeline. If I have a toothache, I call one of my two good friends who are dentists (or as I call them friendtists.) If I have a legal question (read as: I have been watching Boston Legal), I gchat my sorority sister who is an attorney. I love it when my friends call me for advice about whom to support and I don't think any less of them. This just happens to be my wheelhouse. There is nothing wrong with using a trusted proxy to help you make a decision. On my first campaign in Minnesota, I called my State Senator's campaign manager from the voting booth to ask her whom to support in a school board primary. Even though I didn't know the candidates, I knew my colleague would tell me to support someone who agreed with her boss, who I knew I agreed with on education. If you have a friend who is more politically engaged than you, why not ask her? This strategy may sound simplistic, but if you think about it, why trust a pundit whose motives you cannot be entirely sure of over someone who you personally know and trust? We tend to spend time with people who share our values and who knows us better than our friends?

3)Be a single (or double or triple) issue voter. You will never agree with a candidate on everything, so it's important to prioritize. Even experienced campaign operatives and so called Yellow Dog (as in I would vote for a Golden Retriever before a Republican) Democrats have a litmus test. For instance, I won't work for a candidate who is anti-equal marriage, anti-choice or supports repealing healthcare. I care deeply about other issues, but before I even consider voting for someone, I find out where she stands on those three. If you're a small business owner, you might want to do some research on how the Presidential candidates' economic plans would affect your business. Maybe you also care deeply about the environment. You may want to find out if any of the candidates are endorsed by The Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters both of which support candidates based on their stance on environmental issues. Deciding how to vote based on one or two issues doesn't mean you don't care about others, it means that you're voting in line with your own priorities.

4)Party Down. There is a lot of legitimate criticism of our two party system. It certainly creates some strange bedfellows. For example, why does it follow that someone who is anti-choice must also be against government intervention? But the system exists for a reason. If I walked into a voting booth right now and saw two previously unknown candidates, one with a (D) and one with and (R) next to her name, I would vote for the Democrat without a moment's hesitation. I know that the average Democrat is much more likely to agree with me on any given issue than the average Republican, within a margin of error of plus or minus Ed Koch and Joe Lieberman. Even if this particular Democrat disagrees with me on something I care about, on a federal level I know that she is going to caucus with the Democrats and thus help push through at least some legislation that I support, as opposed to a Republican who might help block something, even if she agrees with me, because of pressure from political leadership. (This happens in both parties, although the Republicans are notoriously good at "keeping their people in line.")

5)Identity politics. Just ask my slightly racist grandfather, people tend to vote for people who look like them. Or better yet, check out New York City's voting history. On the one hand, I don't advocate using your race, gender or sexual orientation as the primary means of choosing a candidate (particularly if you're a straight white dude) on the other hand, broadly speaking, people do tend to share values with people who share their culture and minorities are far from adequately represented in our legislatures. Did you know that 17% of Congresspeople are female despite the fact that women make up more than half of our country's voters? Hardly representative for a representative democracy. For this reason alone, all other things being equal, I tend to vote with my vagina (although more difficult since they got rid of the levers on voting machines). But seriously folks, regardless of the issues, there are some very legitimate reasons to vote simply to get more sexual, racial, religious minorities and women into office. The next generation will not aspire to be leaders unless they see people they can relate to in leadership positions. We don't want to send black children the message, "you can be anything you want, it's just reeeeallly unlikely." Finally, the more of any group that is in a governing body, the less their participation is treated as tokenism and their disagreements are seen as discord and the more they can simply legislate.

That my friend, is what you get for asking a good question, a really, really long answer. In conclusion, keep writing to me! I love answering these kind of questions and I hope I answered that one well. Kudos to you, Nikki! The fact that you are curious, pro-active and taking your vote seriously puts you miles above most of the voting population.

Until next time,

*Don't Forget! If you would like to submit a question, email or message me through my tumblr.

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