Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why Vote. . .and How?

Growing up in New York a wonderful woman next door turned to me on Election Day in the 1960s and advised me: "Don't vote, it only encourages them to run!" This advice, from an 80 year old plus woman, perhaps under the influence of whiskey, expressed dissatisfaction with politicans and candidates whom she saw as narrow-minded and petty.

I am reminded of her as I think about the looming Election Day this Tuesday. Many of us will render our choices based on fear, self-interest, anger, or who knows what. None of those reasons should guide our voting choices. We can do better than that.

Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate for Minnesota governor, is haunted by the wasted vote syndrome. He should not be. Nor should any other candidate for office who is considered a longshot, such as Jim Meffert in Minnesota or a Charlie Crist in Florida. Individuals should select their first choice–vote your hope nor your fears–as the saying goes, regardless of whether the choice is Horner, Emmer, or Dayton for governor, or another candidate for another office.

But the first choice of whom to vote for should be more than simply casting a ballot out of anger, self-interest, or partisanship. It should be a vote for our collective future, not simply a private preference. Voting is a private act, but it should also promote a public good.

Voting: A Tale of Two Presidents
What do I mean by saying voting should promote a public good? Political scientists write about the strategy and reasons for voting. Some say we vote based on partisan preferences or affiliation. Others contend it is premised on looking backward, or maybe to the future, or based on economics (“It’s the economy, stupid” as James Carville would say). All of these theories have descriptive cogency. But voting should also have a normative or ethical component.

There are good reasons for why to vote a particular way and there are bad reasons. The worst in my opinion was launched 30 years ago with Ronald Reagan who closed out his campaign by asking voters “If they were better off now than four years ago.” This mantra propelled narrow self-interested greed into American politics, asking voters only to consider their own selfishness when they vote. The path from this Reagan quote to Gordon Geckos’ (of the movie Wall Street) “Greed is good” is direct and short.

The best reason or motive to vote? It came from another president in my lifetime–John Kennedy. It was not an election slogan or gimmick but the most famous call to duty from his inaugural address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” It was a call to what is noble not base, to the public good and not the private interest. It was a call to look beyond partisanship to what is best for all of us.

JFK’s call sounds quaint in the era of self-interested partisanship. But it is precisely the sentiment that needs to guide voters this year.

What is a Wasted Vote?
As you ponder your voting choices prior to Tuesday, think about your choices and reasons to vote.

Vote not as a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or something else. Vote as an American or Minnesotan.

Vote not on the basis of partisanship but on what is in the best interest of the country or the state.

Vote not on the basis of narrow self-interest but what is in the collective public interest of us all.

Vote not on the basis of simplistic attack ads and 10 second sound bites but with a sense of realism. Solutions to our collective problems are not simple and are not rooted in blaming "those people."

Vote not on the basis of promises that seem too good to be true but on what is realistic and seems possible.

Vote not on the basis of whether you are now better off than four years ago but ask how your choice will improve our state or country four years form now.

Vote not because you want to freeze the hands of time in some halcyon mythic time of the past in order to take back your country. Recognize that the country belongs to all of us, but especially to a multi-cultural, multi-racial future where we are all in it together.

Vote for a world that will be better for your children, not just your bank account.

Remember, there are only two types of wasted votes: Those not cast and those where you vote for your second choice. Vote for the candidate of your choice, but make sure your choice is what will promote the best interests of us all.

Political scientists like me make predictions based on patterns we have discovered. Prove me wrong and vote for what is best for us all, and make that your first choice.


  1. Remember, there are only two types of wasted votes: Those not cast and those where you vote for your second choice. Vote for the candidate of your choice, but make sure your choice is what will promote the best interests of us all.

    Nicely stated! I'm frustrated with people who want to, say, vote for Horner, but will instead vote for Emmer because they don't want Dayton to win, or because they don't think Horner has a chance.

    Minnesota is a good place for independent candidates; Ventura is a good example of this. His celebrity likely helped him a great deal, but Minnesotans are especially willing to consider unconventional politicians.

    Now, if we can just get everyone to really, truly vote for who they want to win, we'd be in a good place. I also think that instituting statewide Instant Runoff Voting is a fantastic way to get people more comfortable with the idea of voting for who they truly want to win. Many conservatives and Republicans are opposed to IRV, mostly because they believe that it only help Democrats, because many people would vote for a Green or other left-leaning candidate, and choose a Democrat as their second choice, but this also clearly helps both sides of the political spectrum, as we see with Horner and even Libertarians who may get a good percentage of the right agreeing with them, but choosing to vote Republican anyway.

    Great post! Thanks!

  2. Interesting to see Charlie Cook move the Cravaack-Oberstar race to "toss up".