Thursday, November 02, 2006

How to vote (well, not which way to vote...)

With the elections right around the corner, I thought I'd cover a few things about voting. Some of them have been routinely covered elsewhere but deserve to be emphasized for completeness and, well, emphasis. Some seemed like no-brainers when I was getting my elementary school civics lessons, but I still sometimes hear them used as excuses for voting contrary to one's preferences, or for not voting at all.

Living in a democracy, we are generally obligated to vote, just as we're generally obligated to jury duty when we're called, to pay our taxes, to drive the speed limit, and so on. It doesn't mean we have to mark our ballot for every item we see; if we're ignorant of some of the issues, it's quite plausible that abstaining on one or more issues would be prudent.

There might also be a valid argument for abstaining completely, for exercising your right (it is treated more as a right than an obligation, generally) not to vote, but since you're effectively increasing the proportion of people voting against whatever you'd be voting for, I can't think of a scenario where total, active abstention would be a compelling choice. Feel free to chime in if you can think of any.

Don't listen to anyone who tells you to leave your religion or personal morals and beliefs out of the voting booth. In a free democracy, you can vote however you want. If you are conscientious, you will vote sincerely for the candidates or bills you believe are best for the common good, and against those you believe are not. "Best" may mean clearly and gravely good, and it may just mean minimal remote material cooperation with evil, to the best of your judgment. Voting what you believe is right is what voting is for. If someone has a good reason for you to vote the way he or she wants, against the way you want, let them try to convince you so that you are willing to vote the other way; don't let them convince you that you shouldn't vote a certain way, regardless of your belief that whatever you would vote for would be a good thing (or what you'd vote against would be bad). It's just another case of "tolerance for me but not for thee," or "You're not a valid part of this debate because your position is the one contrary to ours." You're not imposing your morals or religious beliefs on others, you're not obligated to separate religion from government. You're just trying to participate in the public decision making process about what's in the best interest of your society, and using your morals (and hopefully your reason, too) to make that decision, exactly like what the other guy's doing, only he's saying his morals aren't morals at all because they're not traditional, or that his atheistically rooted position alone is proper for informing government because if religion (not just an establishment of religion) shouldn't interfere, then an assertively anti-religious philosophy (which flirts with interfering categorically with establishments of religion). It's not your job to separate religion from government; it's the government's job to stay out of religion's way and to refrain from incorporating religion into itself.

If you hold what I'm calling unconventional morality or don't believe in God, don't be offended at my use of you as an example. I still want you to vote your conscience. I just see traditional people of faith told to vote against their consciences most often by people who claim to be beyond what the average person regards as morals and faith. Each citizen gets one vote, deserving of it or not, and each citizen can decide on his or her own where it should go, from all the options available. If a person shouldn't vote a certain way for reasons not grounded in the issues, if there are choices that would effectively be unconstitutional, then they should never have made it to the ballot in the first place. Once it's an option in the booth, it's fair game for the voter. Still don't like it? Contest it in court; don't interfere otherwise.

An election is a race of sorts, but you are not a competitor. You can't "waste" a vote by voting with the losing candidate any more than you can waste it by voting for a candidate who doesn't need your vote: a candidate who wins by more than a one-vote margin. The polls are about determining the will of the people. Everyone already knows that people generally want to win; getting on the bandwagon is just an abuse of the franchise.

Whether your candidate wins or loses, the margins can tell us something about the sentiment of the populace. Better to take a principled stand and throw in with an unpopular candidate who, you think, is right, than to fall for some celebrity-worship "I was on the same side as the guy who won" rationalization. You know those "Don't blame me, I voted for the other guy" bumper stickers? They may have a point, but a narrow victory can say more than a bunch of whiny post-election rhetoric; the former can indicate how public opinion is shifting, but the latter tends to make people just look like sore losers.

Cast your ballot on Tuesday. Vote for what's right, as best you can judge, and pray for guidance just in case. Abstain on an issue if you feel an ignorant choice would be worse than refraining from choosing, or if all the options are so qualitatively indistinguishable that you can't find a meaningful way to judge one better or worse than the other. Just don't treat your vote like a resource that can be squandered or a windfall that should be hidden in a mattress instead of invested.

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