Peace & Justice

This is the blog of the Commission on Peace and Justice for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Voting is not enough

Jeffrey C. Peck, a member of the Commission on Peace and Justice, also is Professor of Political Science at Adirondack Community College and the American correspondent for the Netherlands publication matchbook & politic. He wrote the following article for the Glens Falls Post-Star on Sunday, November 5. Although the election is over, we believe the points raised are important. The article is reprinted here with permission.
We Americans have long considered our country to be the modern cradle of democracy. This week we once again have an opportunity to prove this to ourselves and the world. We will, of course, do nothing of the kind. Academics and commentators have long sought the reason for our general lack of interest in politics as evidenced by, among other things, poor voter turnout. The reasons often cited for poor turnout include voting on a weekday, too many elections (between three and five depending on the year and place of residence), and simple apathy arising from a variety of causes. One often overlooked and more complicated reason is that we expect too much from voting.

The downside of voting is that it only changes the leadership, can be anticipated (as in late November legislative pay raises), is considered by the authors of the recent book fragmenting to be economically inefficient, and perhaps most importantly is a non-specific behavior. Many of us who do vote put too much faith in the power of the ballot. Voting does not express policy preferences. The winner of an election only knows one thing from an election, that he or she got more votes than his or her opponent.

This is increasingly true given the lack of clear positions candidates take as they try to attract independent and undecided voters. Further evidence that an election is not about policy is the increased use of negative ads which are designed to depress voter turnout not to inform voters. Another frightening phenomenon associated with voting is the general lack of information the general voter possesses. The average voter acquires his or her knowledge of politics from television, the poorest possible source given its lack of depth and need for visual images. Some research has shown that the votes cast by the least informed voters are practically at random.

Voting is not the magic bullet of true democracy. An informed and active citizenry is the real answer. As we have become more self-absorbed we have frequently placed our personal needs ahead of that of the nation. We are too busy to keep informed and too sure that what we know is right regardless of the source. If voting is to have real meaning then it must be one part of our political behavior, not the only one. Without other action, on our part, voting is an exercise in frustration.

The simple prescription for a government attentive to our needs is to use more than one source of information (and it is especially important to use a print source), to vary the sources used, using occasionally even those sources we disagree with, and to make an effort to act politically on occasion. The most efficient way to get attention is to let a representative know your opinion, especially by letter. Other effective means of communication include attending a meeting and speaking, protesting, if that is within your comfort level, and telephoning the officialÂ's office. Email and petitions are less effective. These activities are very different from voting, they are personal, require knowledge, and are specific. They also enable us to hold elected officials directly responsible for their specific actions.

Dorothy Day is reputed to have said, "Don'’t vote, it only encourages them."” Miss Day'’s point is particularly salient given our representatives'’ claims that winning an election is a mandate. Without our active and specific participation in addition to voting, winning an election is not a mandate, it is license. We will all feel good after stepping out of the voting booth on Tuesday having discharged our civic duty. Our real duties as citizens only begin with voting.