Voting

Why You Should and How to Get Out and Do It


This is addressed to everyone, but especially American citizens and especially those who are of age to vote today.

Because please. Do it. Vote.

I did. It took 15 minutes.

I'm not going to tell you who to vote for and I won't tell you who I voted for either, because really that has very little bearing on what I'm begging you to do today. Which is:

  1. Educate yourself.
    • Who's running in your state and district?
    • What are their opinions on important issues? (This includes issues they consider important and issues you consider important.)
    • What constitutional amendments are being proposed in your state?
    • What else is on the ballot?
  2. Consider what's important to you in this election.
    • Think about the short term. What do you want to happen immediately? In the next year or two?
    • Think about the long term. What do you want to happen in the next decade? Even later than that?
    • Consider social issues. Consider military issues. Consider financial issues. Consider international politics. Consider domestic politics.
    • Do your opinions on these matters conflict? Decide what's most important to you, weigh your options, and pick the candidates that come closest to fulfilling your needs.
  3. Vote. Make your decision, then go out there and vote for it.

Voter turnout for congressional elections is usually pretty sparse. According to The Federal Elections Commission, the average voter turnout in congressional elections from 1960 to 1996 is 48.6% of the voting age population(1). In the 2002 congressional elections, the turnout for the voting age population was 37% and for the registered population, 52.9%(2). Considering that Congress has the power(3) to

and that the presidential line of succession passes from the Vice President to the Speaker of the House of Representatives to the President pro tempore of the Senate, I'd say that a turnout of less than half the voting age nation and barely half of registered voters is pretty... sad.

Consider this. The United States of America, whether you personally approve or not, is currently determined to impose democracy on Iraq and in general is supposedly supporting democratic forms of government throughout the world. And yet our voter turnout rates compare very poorly to those of many other democratic or representative governments (Israel, Russia, and India, for example, all rank above us, as do major allies such as the United Kingdom)(4). So, what kind of example are we setting? We're the ones promoting democracy. Maybe we should practice what we preach.

Consider also what kind of freedom and power you are granted by even having elections at all. Okay, so perhaps they are not run as well as they could be. Perhaps ridiculous amounts of money are spent on them. Perhaps their impact on who actually sits in office is less than ideal. But elections do make a difference, especially when you consider governments in many countries around the world who have no real form of free election. And if you want to change the system? You'd better do something, not just sit there and complain. Voting is a good first step. Our system, dysfunctional as it is, gives us at least some ability to impact national and international policy.

Cherish this power. USE IT. VOTE.

Let me make this personal for a moment. I come from the Soviet Union. I was born there, back when there was a Soviet Union. I spent a good deal of my childhood there, and in other Asian and European countries (the latter for precisely the reason that the Soviet Union was, well, the Soviet Union). My parents were born and raised there, as were my grandparents. My ancestry in Slavic countries goes back beyond anyone's ability to remember or trace. I'm proud of my heritage -- we're a strong people of great perseverance and spirit. However, I'm also intimately acquainted with the realities of living in a country where your voice will never be heard. Where to speak your opinion can easily lead to imprisonment, torture, and death. Where the supposedly elected leader of your people can kill 60 million of your countrymen for the crime of disagreeing with him -- with or without proof. I may have been born during the tag end of the regime, and I may have been young while I lived there, but I still remember. And if my experience could be considered paltry, I need only to look at the faces of my friends and family and their friends and family -- of anyone who shares my heritage -- to know the ravages of a country where the voice of its people is systematically silenced.

The right to vote is precious. You are all lucky to have it. Use it. Vote.

A note to those of you who choose not to vote out of protest. You have probably formulated your own reasons for protesting the current electoral system. You must ask yourself if those ideals are more important to you than having a say, however limited, in the current important foreign and domestic issues facing the country. I also ask you to consider two more things. First of all, take another look at the turnout numbers I quoted previously. How is your choice not to vote because of reasoned, intelligent, informed protest to be distinguished from the roughly 100 billion people's choice not to vote(5) because of laziness, apathy, lack of information, and other such reasons that have little to do with informed political protest? I also ask you to consider how your silence is going to change the system in any way, or even let those who do have some power to change the system know that you feel this way, when, as I pointed out earlier, your silence is hard or impossible to distinguish from that of roughly half to a third of the country.

Don't like the system? Change it. Vote.

Finally, a note to those who don't vote because they think it doesn't make a difference in their lives (a nurse I overheard yesterday said she wasn't voting because she would be "paying taxes either way"). Yes, there are differences between the candidates. Yes there are differences between the parties. Even if you think your one vote in your one district in your one state won't make that much of a difference, enough votes, enough seats won or lost, enough participation in the electoral process WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE. You may be one of approximately 300 billion, but the House of Representatives member you help elect is one of 435, and the senators for your state are two out of 100(6).

Their voices are heard. Their powers are important. And you can have a choice in who speaks for you. If you vote.

So, what if you want to vote but aren't sure how, or where, or if you're eligible? Well, I've tried to put together a last-minute set of resources to help you out.

  1. Find out if you can vote.

    Most states require you to register to vote. If you're registered, or you don't remember whether or not you're registered, it's a good idea to confirm your status and check to make sure your information is up to date. CanIVote.org (hosted by the National Association of Secretaries of State) provides a resource for confirming your registration status under their Step 1.

    If you aren't registered to vote, it may not be too late. Some states don't require registration, have no deadline for registration in person, or have registration deadlines that have not yet passed (amazing!). These sates include Louisiana, Maine, and North Dakota, though the rules are different for each. To look up specifics for those states and for a general list of registration deadlines, try the National Association of Secretaries of States' information sheet on 2006 registration deadlines (PDF). For general registration deadlines (in "days before election" rather than specific calendar dates for this particular election), try the United States Election Assistance Commission's State Voter Registration Deadlines page.

    If it's too late for you to register to vote this time around after all, I strongly encourage you to register to vote anyway, as soon as possible, so that you are ensured the ability to vote in the next election. Don't wait until the deadline for the Presidential election in 2008. Remember, local elections matter too, and the sooner you register the less you have to worry about it and the sooner you can start participating in the political process. The United States Election Assistance Commission has a register to vote page and has provided a printable registration form with general instructions and instructions and mailing addresses for each state (PDF).
  2. Find your polling place and time.

    Many locales now offer online services that will help you locate your local polling place. The United States Election Assistance Commission provides links to two sites that host utilities that let you choose your state from a list and then take you to the page on your state's site which will help you find your polling place. I've compared the two utilities for a few states and gotten identical results but have not checked them all, so I'll provide links to both. The League of Women Voters has a Polling Place Locator hosted on its own page, while CanIVote.org has a similar utility (Step 2) hosted on its general voting assistance page (its index page).

    You also need to know when your local polling place will be open. To the best of my knowledge, the hours that polling places are operational is on a statewide basis, so all polling places in a state have the same hours. In some states, election day is also a holiday, and schools may be closed that day as well. For a full list of polling hours, see the National Association of Secretaries of State's document on Polling Place Hours, Election Holiday Status and School Closings by State (PDF). Generally polling hours start early in the morning, so you can get there before work/school, and close mid-to-late evening so you can sneak it in after work/school.
  3. Determine what kind of ID is required.

    Identification requirements for voters differ state-to-state, so you need to know what document or combination of documents you need to bring to be able to vote. Most states will accept a current and valid government-issued photo identification such as a driver's license or state ID card, and some states will even allow a utility bill, bank statement, social security card, paycheck with your name and address on them, birth certificate, Medicare/Medicaid card, or other documents to serve as your identification. U.S. passports and voter cards are also usually accepted. However, the rules do differ for every single state, so it's best to look your state up. You can do so by using CanIVote.org's utility for determining acceptable ID methods (under Step 3).
  4. Educate yourself about issues, candidates, and what's on the ballot.

    You may simply elect to vote along party lines. In some areas, volunteers associated with each party will be on hand to provide you with information on the ballot and their party's stand on it. (At my polling place, volunteers from both parties handed out sample ballots that were exact copies of the electronic ballot pages, with the selection advocated by each party highlighted on their sheet. I took one of each flyer.)

    However, I strongly recommend learning as much as you can about the candidates, amendments, and other possible ballot items before going to your polling place. Educating yourself as much as possible is a good first step on making informed decisions in your political life. It's difficult to obtain reliable, non-partisan information, however. I'll try to provide what I can here, and if I find anything else throughout the day, I'll update this list.

    There are several good places to start your search for information.
    • Project Vote Smart is a good place to find out who's running in your area and what's on your local ballot. However, the site is experiencing very heavy traffic today and sometimes times out. Just try it several times and it should work. Some quick links:
    • Links to Election Resources hosted by the US Department of State. Provides links to many helpful sites including information on the election process, congressional and gubernatorial races, Issues, Polls and Predictions, and Media Sites
    • Candidates' campaign web sites. These can sometimes be hard to find. A good place to look is Project Vote Smart's candidate listings, where for each candidate you can find biographical information, contact information, and, if available, a link their web site. Please note that candidates' web sites are likely to be biased, but they are also likely to give you a good idea of the candidates' positions.
  5. VOTE.

    Get out there and do it.

As a final note, a little about why I wrote this. Simply put: Voting is important. I do care, very much, who and what you vote for, but that's none of my business and it's much more important to me that you vote at all. Please. Go vote.

You can contact me at arilooks [at] yahoo [dot] com.


Footnotes

1 Statistics obtained from United States Election Assistance Commission via their National Voter Turnout in Federal Elections: 1960-1996 page. The turnout for the registered population, as calculated by me using straight averages of the percentages, was 73%. However, this statistic is misleading due to registrations from numerous states not being included (in several cases the raw numbers for turnout exceeded those for registration!). (back to body text)

2 Statistics obtained from United States Election Assistance Commission via their Voter Registration and Turnout - 2002 page. (back to body text)

3 The powers of Congress are outlined in Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution. The Library of Congress has a page on the Constitution where you can view images of the document or read a transcription. A slightly easier to read transcription of the Constitution is available from the National Archives site. Interpreting the Constitution is a complicated affair, so it's hard to find fair, concise sources to distill it. The U.S. Senate official site has the full text of the Consitution with brief explanations of each part alongside (link goes directly to Article I, Section 8). Project Vote Smart also provides two helpful links. GOVERNMENT 101: Congress explains the differences between the two houses, qualifications for entering Congress, explanations of congressional leadership positions, and a summary of the powers of Congress as found in the Consitution. GOVERNMENT 101: The Constitution distills the Contitution down to very few points; most helpful in this case is the Checks and Balances section at the top. Grolier's Online's The American Presidency (from Scholastic Classroom Magazines) has a section on Congress that lists several helpful links that summarize relevant information about Congress. (back to body text)

4 Franklin, Mark N., Cees van der Eijk, Diana Evans, Michael Fotos, Wolfgang Hirczy de Mino, Michael Marsh, and Bernard Wessels. Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. The relevant table listing voter turnout rates in twenty-two countries is Table I.I on page 11, which you can view for yourself using Amazon.com's OnlineReader feature for this book. The table provides much more information about this data, but it's relevant to note that the standard deviation in turnout for the United States is fairly low. (back to body text)

5 I'm basing that 100 billion estimate on the following information: The average voting age population for the election years 1990-1996 and 2002 (when the population would be roughly comparable to today's) is 196 billion, while average voting age population turnout for the same years has averaged a little over 43%. This means that about 111 billion people who were of age to vote chose not to vote. Even assuming that a generous 11 billion of those people chose to not vote out of reasoned political protest, their voice is lost amid the 100 billion-strong din of apathy. All statistics obtained from the sources quoted in notes 1 and 2, and all averages calculated using straight averages of the populations and percentages. This may be a bit messy, as it has not been adjusted for weight, but it gives a rough approximation of the numbers. (back to body text)

6 All three numbers obtained from the CIA World Factbook, in the People and Government sections for the United States of America page. (back to body text)