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We don't need more voters, we need better voters
November 4, 2002 1:01 PM   Subscribe

We don't need more voters, we need better voters "Far from urging everyone to vote, perhaps the media might better urge those who are going to vote to first make sure that they have heard both sides of the issues at stake, instead of just voting by habit, whim, or according to the image or rhetoric of the candidates. A case could be made that those who have not informed themselves on the issues have a patriotic duty to stay away from the polls on Election Day, rather than mess with something that is too important to be decided by ignorance or prejudice. " Is Tom's suggestion an attack on a civic institution/central tenet of democracy, or a needed improvement? I share the opinion that uninformed voter turnout is a greater problem than low voter turnout, and I know I'm not alone, but I prefer the approach of those who promote use of emerging information resources, especially the incredible Project Vote Smart, rather than simply complaining. Why don't Sowell -- or for that matter, the rest of traditional media -- push these organizations? What can we do about it -- other than posting on Metafilter?
posted by namespan (35 comments total)

 
This is a symptom of a larger American process by which parties have become less important. No -- hear me out. In earlier times, the party organization had a great deal of power and the party structure and membership enforced candidate ideology. This had its drawbacks, among them opportunities for corruption and control by an oligarchy of the few. There have been parallel trends working to reduce this power over the last few generations. One of them is a desire for clean government, which has rooted out some, but not all, corruption. Another is populism, which has tilted power away from the oligarchies toward popular primary elections, where presumably the rank and file may exercise control. Another is the growth of broadcast media as a force in campaigns, which has introduced its own strengths and weaknesses, but mainly has sent campaign costs through the roof, increasing candidate dependence on money. Last is the growth of the PAC, originally thought to be a boon for transparency and accountability (don't laugh, it's true).

Put these all together and you have candidates who need lots of dough to get elected, money which comes from PACs and powerful donors instead of parties, parties which cannot enforce conformity among their rank and file, and an electorate who knows that party affiliation is nearly meaningless and sees candidates who are beholden to monied interests of one kind or another.

We've arguably traded one type of corruption for another, and reduced transparency and accountability in the process.

In this system the responsibility for choosing a candidate with a given set of political positions and an abundance of character falls directly on the individual voter. That's something that can work well at one level, for instance the selection of a president, but not so well when it's multiplied all the way down to the Metropolitan Sewage and Water Reclamation District. It may seem more responsible to say we've gotten rid of slate voting for these lesser offices, but really -- who wants to research 200 candidates for 50 positions? Before, voters could count on the party -- to some extent -- to vet people who would pursue compatible policies. Now, the voter has to spend two weeks researching everything on the internet -- and people think there should be more of this --- and are surprised when many voters just turn up the apathy static.
posted by dhartung at 1:19 PM on November 4, 2002


How about this: add multiple-choice quiz questions to the ballot. Your vote counts if you can correctly answer three simple and uncontroversial questions about each issue or candidate you're voting on.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:20 PM on November 4, 2002


Perhaps we don't need better voters; perhaps we need for the outcome of elections to matter less.

If we didn't turn over so much power and money to our elected officials in the first place, they wouldn't be able to do as much harm to us as they do.

Just a thought.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:24 PM on November 4, 2002


Another article is closer to the sort of op-ed / informational role I think the media could play better, and makes a useful distinction between actively seeking information, and passively seeking it.

And another question: I've often thought that a large number of people who vote party line Democrat/Republican do so out of laziness or lack of good information that's available for the price of reasonable effort. They identify certain values with a party, and then automatically assume that a candidate from the party they've identified with will automatically share their values and/or be the most effective advocate in office. Could readily available information about individual candidates tone down partisan rhetoric, and lead to a more diverse political system?
posted by namespan at 1:27 PM on November 4, 2002


I myself identify certain values with the major parties:

Democrats rob you.

Republicans beat you.


This definitely helps simplify the voting process.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:31 PM on November 4, 2002


If we didn't turn over so much power and money to our elected officials in the first place, they wouldn't be able to do as much harm to us as they do.

Amen.

I personally think we should slash the government's income to a fraction of it's current amount, and then let them figure out what to do with what's left.
posted by oissubke at 1:36 PM on November 4, 2002


it's strange...the consensus appears to be that "both" parties are rotten, yet a vote for a third party is "wasted."
posted by mcsweetie at 1:45 PM on November 4, 2002


"i wish i had a schilling for every sensless killing
i'd buy a government. america's for sale and
you can get a good deal on it and make a healthy
profit, or maybe tear it apart you start with
assumption, that a million people are smart, smarter than one"
- NOFX, The Decline
posted by john.institution at 1:54 PM on November 4, 2002


mcsweetie, that's rhetorically entertaining, but your method is suspect. That some group of people have made the first statement, and some other group which may or may not overlap the first group have made the second statement doesn't approach any definition of "consensus" that I know about.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:00 PM on November 4, 2002


it's strange...the consensus appears to be that "both" parties are rotten, yet a vote for a third party is "wasted."

Nobody will vote for third parties unless they become serious contenders, and they'll never become serious contenders unless people vote for them.

The parties can't change that. The voters can.

So get rid of the idiotic "wasted vote" mindset and vote for whichever candidate you think would best represent you. Do it every time. Eventually, things will pick up for that party. Where were the Libertarians 20 years ago? Now they're a (somewhat) serious political contender, no thanks to dimwits who believe in Libertarianism but vote for Reps/Dems anyway.
posted by oissubke at 2:10 PM on November 4, 2002


oissubke writes: I personally think we should slash the government's income to a fraction of it's current amount, and then let them figure out what to do with what's left.

Or the other way around. One proposal that I've heard is that the taxpayers themselves allocate the money on their return to the major program areas they favor. You could allocate it all to defense, or all to social programs; or divvy it up any way you like. Democracy by tax return.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:13 PM on November 4, 2002


How about this: add multiple-choice quiz questions to the ballot. Your vote counts if you can correctly answer three simple and uncontroversial questions about each issue or candidate you're voting on.[George_Spiggott]

I like this idea in theory. It practice, it seems problematic (the definition of "uncontroversial" can be very controversial). I do wish they'd have a quiz like this for the *candidates*.

Democrats rob you.

Republicans beat you.
[ZenMasterThis]


I think the place to fix this is in the primaries.
posted by originalname37 at 2:23 PM on November 4, 2002


We don't need more voters, we need better voters

And we thought this Platonic ideal was lost, so long ago.
posted by four panels at 2:26 PM on November 4, 2002


Or the other way around. One proposal that I've heard is that the taxpayers themselves allocate the money on their return to the major program areas they favor. You could allocate it all to defense, or all to social programs; or divvy it up any way you like. Democracy by tax return.

Not a half-bad idea, that.
posted by oissubke at 2:32 PM on November 4, 2002


Third parties in "first past the post" systems like ours win when they guts themselves up to reject the "lesser of two evils" analysis, and accept the fact that their battle to rise to power will allow the "greater" evil to win some elections.

The best example of this is the Labour Party of the UK. They were a tiny "third" party (if that) after World War I, but rose in a comparatively brief period of time (less than twenty years) to be the major opposition to the Conservative Party.

They did it by deciding that the old major left-leaning party -- the Liberals -- were fundamentally unwilling to make the changes that the Labour Party saw as necessary, and it was better in the long run for the Tories to win a few elections if it could ultimately enable Labour to displace Liberal as the principal left-leaning party.

They did it -- but it is worth knowing that the Liberals never gave up, and divided Labour-Liberal voting enabled many of the Conservative victories long after Liberals had been permanently consigned to third party status. Only after 70+ years has there been something of an entente, with Liberals and Labour more or less agreeing to leave each other alone in their chosen districts (Labour having the overwhelming share, of course.)

As I see it, the left in America would be willing to do this in order to bring about a rise for the Greens (or, more likely, a Green-left-Labor fusion) -- if it were not for abortion and affirmative action. Abortion and affirmative action are the two places where moderate Democrats have held the line on issues treasured by the left. The banning of abortion and affirmative action are likely to be the price that the left would have to pay for the left third party to rise to prominence -- and that's a price I don't see them willing to risk.
posted by MattD at 2:33 PM on November 4, 2002


In a similar vein, here's one blogger's take on the issue.

My two cents: it disturbs me to no end when people claim that we have a "duty" or "obligation" to vote. Voting is strictly a RIGHT. Nothing more, nothing less. People who don't vote have every bit the right of those who do to complain, contrary to the shuck-meisters who claim otherwise. After all, why should people expect me to vote for candidates that I truly don't believe represent the best interests of me and/or the nation?
posted by davidmsc at 2:40 PM on November 4, 2002


MattD: What about attacking the ability to have a majority in the senate and house by going whole hog after enough seats that neither party would have a majority? what if you couldn't pass a bill without getting the greens, or a handful of dems, to vote with you?
posted by tellmenow at 2:42 PM on November 4, 2002


I've heard the idea that the right is very unlikely to allow Roe v. Wade to be overturned, because it's worth far more to Republicans as a smoke screen. As long as abortion is legal, they can point to it and say, "Look, we're fighting for moral rightness!" while their real agenda is getting done on the business side of things. I come from Tennessee, where the majority of Republican voters support the party for its moral stance, not its economic one (which, of course, is far more important in everyday politics). Abortion, anti-flag burning, school prayer, etc. are all just fancy smoke screens.

Allying itself with the religious right is one of the smartest things the Republican party has ever done. It gives the party a ton of committed voters who would probably just as likely vote Democrat otherwise. Again, just look at the South, particularly the Southeast, which used to be a Democratic stronghold until abortion and other religious issues became hot topics.

Of course, the Democrats are just as bad about exploiting abortion - they want us to think they're the party that is "protecting our personal freedoms" while being nearly as indebted to big business as the Republicans.

Bah.
posted by UKnowForKids at 2:47 PM on November 4, 2002


George_Spiggott - while your faculties of analysis are truly impressive, your grasp of hyperbole is not!

So get rid of the idiotic "wasted vote" mindset and vote for whichever candidate you think would best represent you. Do it every time.

right on!
posted by mcsweetie at 2:50 PM on November 4, 2002


One reason why the Greens aren't getting any traction is that while a few Democratic voters have gone over, Democratic candidates have not. If a few prominent Democratic politicians with the power to carry their voter base were to switch it might speed up the process of replacing what many see as a party which doesn't as a whole represent anyone.

I think the Democrats are a bizarre menagerie that works out in the aggregate to be centrist, but not in anything like a unified way. Consequently, even when the Democrats have a majority they still tend to abrogate power to the much more unified opposition.

On the other hand, few of the Republicans voters that I know are fully on board with that party's extremism, but stay away from voting Democrat because they like a liberal alternative even less. if the Democrats were to bleed liberals to the Greens, maybe they'd become the new moderate party, and a lot of moderate Republicans would switch.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:52 PM on November 4, 2002


If the Democrats were to bleed liberals to the Greens, maybe they'd become the new moderate party, and a lot of moderate Republicans would switch.

That's the first intelligent thing I've heard about politics all day long.
posted by oissubke at 3:41 PM on November 4, 2002


This thread hasn't contained one kind of discussion I had hoped it would.... so maybe I'll try and wrangle it that way. What does it take to get truly informed voters? How can it be done? Project Vote smart is at least six years old -- I noticed it in November 1996, and have used it since then in making voting decisions. However, from its rare mention in the popular press, you'd think it was read about as often as the congressional record. Even Sowell -- who seems like a pretty smart and informed guy -- complains about the level of education from voters, but doesn't bother referencing some of the rich online resources that can be part of a solution. Why doesn't the popular press pick this stuff up? How does one change this and get the word out?

As for myself, other than posting to Metafilter, I've started to email these resources to friends, which will have to do for this election. For the future, I'm thinking of putting together a press kit that could be sent to newspapers, and possibly putting together a lesson plan that could be used in a secondary education context. What other ideas do you have?
posted by namespan at 3:45 PM on November 4, 2002


Too many people seem to regard voting as a form of personal expression, rather than as a sobering responsibility to the country as a whole,

Well, yeah, in a country which values the individual over the state this is not surprising. Voting is all about "What is in it for me?" This is how we get stuck with people like Jesse Helms. His own constituents didn't always agree with his rabidly right ideas and determinedly 1950's mind set-- but the man could bring home the pork!

If conservative voters stay home on Election Day, then the Democrats will retain control of the Senate and the only kinds of judges likely to be confirmed will be those who "interpret" the law to mean whatever they want it to mean, regardless of what it says

Yeah, Republican judges never do that.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:01 PM on November 4, 2002


oissubke: aren't you already moderating over in this thread? 15/119 (c. 12.5%) is high in a thread you have started and wish to flourish: 4/23 (c.17.5%) is even higher!

Do the dogs need a walk, perhaps?
posted by dash_slot- at 9:31 PM on November 4, 2002


(ooops - this thread)
posted by dash_slot- at 9:32 PM on November 4, 2002


oissubke - That's the first intelligent thing I've heard about politics all day long.


That's the most arrogant thing I've heard about politics all day long.


For the first time in my voting history, I'm tempted to vote against a candidate because of their voting record concerning one issue (the war to kill lots of the folk in another country just to bitchslap the guy who tried to kill the president's daddy). I won't, though, because I actually keep a sense of the big picture, For all of you folk who wish to diss those who vote a party ticket, I'd like to point to the foolishness of voting a single issue ticket. Sometimes its worth chasing most of what you want at the expense of your few pet issues. Politics is a mutable beast, and it resembles a game of Go far more than a game of Chess. As one who doesn't believe both parties to be full of shit, I'd like to posit that sometimes voting isn't as difficult as many would have it seem.

And oissubke, you might want to start with a pony rather than that high-ass horse you've been riding since this morning.

(/curmudgeon)
posted by Wulfgar! at 10:29 PM on November 4, 2002


And oissubke, you might want to start with a pony rather than that high-ass horse you've been riding since this morning.

It's a giraffe, Wulfgar. She gets upset when people keep referring to her as a horse.
posted by oissubke at 3:53 AM on November 5, 2002


Even Sowell -- who seems like a pretty smart and informed guy -- complains about the level of education from voters, but doesn't bother referencing some of the rich online resources that can be part of a solution.

Perhaps because Sowell knows what only the wisest ever realize: that true education cannot occur when half the work is done for you.

If you want to be a conscientious citizen and voter, you will do the work yourself. You will take the initiative to find (many) sources of information and take the time to read them. You will shut off Friends or Springer or Buffy and stop playing the Sims or GTA3 or reading Entertainment Weekly and People long enough to feed your brain with some history, some facts and some perspectives. It's not just about what each candidate claims to stand for -- a concept proven time and time again to be very, very flexible when backs are against the wall and the Whip is cracking. (Pun intended.)

It's not necessarily easy, but then again, it probably shouldn't be that easy. The important things, the serious things, the things that matter rarely are handed to you on a platter. And it is serious, and when people start recognizing that a little more, statements like ZenMasterThis's will no longer be so horribly, horribly true.
posted by Dreama at 5:42 AM on November 5, 2002


I'm disturbed by the seeming arrogance and lack of knowledge shown by people trying to defend not voting as a legitimate response to lack of political choices.

While those who do so should follow their conscience, I think that they miss the point of our political life. Finding the perfect candidate will never happen--and it is leading to the creation of demagogic blocks or cadres of voters who can't seem to understand that compormise is the essence of political life. I don't get everything from the candidates I vote for--but I'm voting for a compromise of values shared among a diverse group (in my case, the Minnesota DFL, or Democrats in the rest of the USA). While I can see many good positions among the platforms of the Independents and Greens (and even some of the Republicans), I'm voting for the best compromise I can find.

It's not perfect--but it's not broken. There are problems--but I'm hopeful that the future will be better, more humane, more equal, more inclusive.

Rejecting the right to vote is certainly an option. I think it is a bad one. My two cents.
posted by mooncrow at 7:02 AM on November 5, 2002


Where were the Libertarians 20 years ago? Now they're a (somewhat) serious political contender

Yeah, all those Libertarian governors, senators, and representatives are really rocking Washington. Harry Browne almost got a percent!
posted by owillis at 7:30 AM on November 5, 2002


If I'm not mistaken, didn't Libertarian Carla Howell get about the same proportion of votes (~13%) as the Republican candidate for US Senator in the last MA election?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:24 AM on November 5, 2002


Dreama: I wouldn't argue the point that you can do better than some of the online resources. If you really want to be a good citizen, I think you need to be familiar with things like studies that show there's no correlation between per-pupil spending or classroom size and high test scores... so when someone running for or in elected office suggests that the solution is higher per-pupil spending and lower classroom sizes, you can either try to get their attention or look elsewhere. There was a lot of truth to the comment over in oissubke's "Vote Vote Vote" thread... don't become an informed voter, become informed. I recently went to a Ralph Nader speech, and he'd agree.

However....

that true education cannot occur when half the work is done for you.

Half the work is nearly always done for you. Even in much of the best education, you work with secondary sources. And there's simply no way for an entire citizenry to work from the primary sources when it comes to an election. Focal points like Project Vote Smart and Open Secrets and others are something of a necessity. For the best citizens, they're starting points. For many of us, they're the last step, but they're definitely a few rungs up the ladder from TV ads, horserace-style media coverage, and lawn signs.

In other words, the web resources certainly aren't the end all, but they have a great potential to be able to raise the level of informedness among the general citizenry. The fact that there's an even higher goal to shoot for doesn't excuse Sowell or anyone from pointing these things out. Especially as they bemoan our ill-informed electorate.
posted by namespan at 9:46 AM on November 5, 2002


Owillis: Yeah, all those Libertarian governors, senators, and representatives are really rocking Washington. Harry Browne almost got a percent!

Touché, OW, but look at the strong showing (47%) for the Libertarian-conceived plan to end the income tax in Taxachusetts, of all places. That was pretty impressive.

(My opinion: Individual Libertarians are nuts, but Libertarian ideas form an important tributary to Conservative/Republican thought.)
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:26 PM on November 6, 2002


(My opinion: Individual Libertarians are nuts, but Libertarian ideas form an important tributary to Conservative/Republican thought.)

Well said. Too many "Libertarians" are just folks who want to be "rebellious" and/or legalize pot, but Libertarianism itself has some great concepts.

I don't think Libertarianism is an ideal, but it's approach would go a long way toward getting the Reps and Dems to clean up their act. Slash taxes and get rid of big slices of government, and I think Washington will quickly get back into shape.
posted by oissubke at 3:04 PM on November 6, 2002


If we didn't turn over so much power and money to our elected officials in the first place, they wouldn't be able to do as much harm to us as they do.

Amen.

I personally think we should slash the government's income to a fraction of it's current amount, and then let them figure out what to do with what's left.


you guys should go back & read some basic poli sci texts (hobbes, locke, spinoza, machiavelli, grotius, etc). Without government, might makes right. That's why human beings band together & form civil societies - to increase their might and to secure themselves against injustice. We need gov't to make laws, to uphold laws, and to implement the results of those laws; we need people to assure that the basic right of a citizen to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness is maintained. it would be nice if people would just all be nice and look out for one another, but sadly we don't. Democracy is decidely imperfect but it's the best we've got. Thinning it down so that less people are involved, or so that it is less able to guarantee its citizen's rights would not improve things.

As for the true topic of the thread, it is lamentable how uninformed many voters are. I like the (implausible) idea of the little quiz on the ballot... or just having the voter fill out one of those NPAT thingies and casting their vote to whichever candidate they most closely match... as it is, personalities overshadow positions on issues. These ideas are appealing but probably unworkable. In some utopian societies citizens are directly involved with issues, but the problem is that everyone has to have time for a life - that's why we entrust politicians to represent us, instead of all personally voting on how we want things to go.

if the business of governing were as simple as filling out a quiz or allocating taxes perhaps we wouldn't need legislators. But the amount of research you might have to do to really understand what it would mean for your money to go to one thing versus another could be unreasonable to expect of people without extensive leisure time. Also, the gov is meant to be set up to help all people, even those the multitude forget - individuals might be greedy about who gets their taxes; an objective gov supposedly less so.
posted by mdn at 3:07 PM on November 6, 2002


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