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June 26, 2006

Local Voting

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's a well-known paradox of the American political system.

In theory, voters were supposed to be most knowledgeable regarding local conditions and local candidates as opposed to state and national issues and personalities. That explains the original notion that voters elected electoral college representatives rather than a presidential aspirant. (Technically, this is still the case.) And it's why senators for many years were appointed by state legislatures rather than holding office as the outcome of a direct popular vote.

This kind of voter was just possibly the reality in the 1780s when the Constitution was framed. Communication was slow in those days; the fastest means of spreading news was via dispatch riders. Newspapers were largely a city thing, not part of the daily lives of rural residents.

Those times and conditions are long gone. In general, voters are more familiar with national issues and candidates then with local affairs. It's certainly true for me now and has been my entire life.

Now, I happen to think I'm a pretty good citizen. Not perfect, mind you, but maybe a teensy bit above average. I used to vote in every election that cropped up. And for every office and ballot issue to boot. So there.

No longer.

Over the years I became increasingly uncomfortable with the thought that I didn't know anything about most candidates for really local offices such as Port Commissioner, Coroner, School Board Member, and so forth. This wasn't quite so serious where candidates ran as political party members, because party affiliation served as a rough filtering mechanism. But here in Washington state, most local offices are non-partisan. And voting without knowledge was simply contributing random noise to election returns. Worse, I realized that I might well be voting for people whose positions were antithetical to mine.

Nowadays I don't vote if I happen to be totally ignorant regarding candidates or issues. This means I sometimes don't vote at all in some local, off-year elections.

I'm even less motivated to vote on local offices because, even though offices are technically non-partisan, the candidates who tend to get elected around here are in fact partisans of the party I oppose. That is, my vote doesn't affect the outcome, and I normally don't like the outcome anyway.

All the same, I do vote on a number of offices. So, aside from paid political messages, how do I inform myself?

Out here there are voter's pamphlets that display a picture of each candidate (though some don't submit a picture) along with a brief statement from the candidate. The statements can be helpful, but sometimes you have to work to tease out useful information.

Usually all candidates claim to be in favor of children, a clean environment, honest government, etc., etc. Not helpful. So then I look for other clues. The fact that a candidate had once been a Peace Corps volunteer tells you one thing, 20 years service as a military officer or policeman might say something else.

Then, where possible, I look at what people and organizations support each candidate. For instance, does one candidate get lots of endorsements from, say, government employee unions. Or is a candidate endorsed by politicians of known partisan status (that is, are all endorsers known to be Democrats, say).

Sometimes, I can be influenced by yard-signs for candidates. Near the state capitol grounds is a neighborhood populated largely by career agency managers and legislative staff functionaries. So, if most signs on their yards favor one candidate, I'm strongly tempted to vote for someone else -- provided his voter pamphlet paragraph doesn't demonstrate serious weirdness.

All-in-all, I do the best I can given the (admitted small) amount of time I'm willing to devote to local politics. Yes, I know my behavior ain't pretty compared to the ideals promoted in my high school Civics textbook. C'est la vie.

And how do you cope?



posted by Donald at June 26, 2006


I read up on the candidates in the most reputable newspaper I can find. If there's only one Democrat, I vote Democrat (assuming it's not a total lunatic.) Otherwise, I base my decision primarily on what I glean from the paper.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on June 26, 2006 7:32 PM

Here on Long Island the only local elections that get much attention are those involving school district budgets. Almost invariably, each district's budget is defeated in the initial election, then there are all these horror stories about how the children will suffer as sports, art, music etc. will be cut,* and the budget typically passes when subject to a revote a few months later.

* = oddly, there's never any talk about cutting any of the layers of utterly redundant bureaucracy in the district offices.

Posted by: Peter on June 26, 2006 8:17 PM

Sigh. How can anyone think his vote affects any election? Individual votes are utterly futile, they affect nothing. No elections - or at most a vanishingly small number of very very local ones - are decided by one vote. So how can anyone think his preparation for voting affects any outcome? Until someone gives me a good answer to this question, I cannot treat voting seriously. It makes no sense.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on June 27, 2006 11:54 AM

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