I'm sure you've heard what they always say about politics and religion: that they're the two most taboo subjects to bring up at a dinner/cocktail party. For some reason, when these two subjects are involved, personal beliefs combine with tradition and social forces, and for some reason it's impossible to have a rational discussion.
Fortunately, this is no place for a rational discussion - this is the Internet. And seeing as the 2010 General Elections are fast approaching (November 2 - get out there and register, everyone!) and I've been agonizing over which candidates/ballot measures to support, this seems like a fine time to open up my thought process to our loyal readership.
Keep in mind that I only received a California ballot in the mail (they only let you vote once nowadays, more's the pity), so that's what most of my discussion is about. But many of the general principles apply to all elections - plus we've got some pretty interesting ballot measures coming up in the Golden State. Furthermore, I fully encourage you to sound off about YOUR state's elections in the comments section!
Although we still have two years to enjoy/endure our current President (depending on your point of view), a fair amount stands to change throughout the country during this election. We have 39 Governorships up for reelection (37 states and two territories), 37 out of 100 seats in the Senate, and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Those are just the cold, hard numbers - the explanations regarding the who, where, why, and how I leave up to more capable/politically-minded people than myself.
Let me just say, before I go any further, that I follow politics in the same capacity that I follow football: I'll pay vague attention during the regular season, I'll keep track of who's in the playoffs, and I'll watch the Superbowl all the way through (as long chips and beer and friends are plentiful). It's the same with politics: 10 months out of the year, I'm blissfully unaware of what they're doing on Capitol Hill or in Sacramento, but provide me with ballot and a 128-page pamphlet filled with a refreshing combination of rational arguments and impassioned pleas to vote a certain way, and I'm hooked.
In 2008, I read the summaries of and the arguments for/against each and every proposition on the ballot. (I was neither patient nor politically savvy enough to read the full text of each bill, but maybe that level of devotion/obsessiveness will come soon enough.) Although I wasn't informed of all the issues surrounding each ballot measure, I took the time to formulate a well-thought-out position on each one. Every "Yes" or "No" vote I cast reflected a (marginally) responsible decision-making process to put into effect the policies I thought best for myself, my state, and my country.
Regarding the actual candidates for State Senate, State Assembly, etc., I had absolutely no interest in trying to formulate an opinion. I know we live in a two-party system, so at bottom it's a two horse race and all those other names on the ballot are meaningless - but I would just feel bad voting for one of the major players while leaving all those other candidates totally unexplored. Perhaps there will come a day where voting for the Peace and Freedom Party will be somewhat more than a futile attempt to make a statement, but it is not this day.
This year, I hope to take a little more time to learn more about California's gubernatorial candidates. Currently all I know about each comes from negative television commercials. Meg Whitman is the corrupt former CEO of eBay who hasn't voted in 20 years. Jerry Brown is a confused former governor of California who just wants to raise taxes and force us deeper into the recession. Lesser of two evils, I guess? Should I take production value into account when deciding who to vote for?
I'll bet this is why so many Americans choose to join political parties - once you affiliate yourself with a group of people with whom you share at least some of the same beliefs and priorities, you can safely vote "down the ticket" and never have to make another political decision again. It sure is a lot less work and a lot more solidarity than being undeclared.
But what really holds my attention are the state measures, because with those, you can clearly see and easily read about what each one means and what impact it could make for the state. I haven't yet read up on Propositions 19-27, but that's what seven-hour plane rides are for.
Among the notable ones are Prop 19, which would legalize Marijuana under California law. If it passes (and if it doesn't get tied up in the courts and if it's not squashed by the D.E.A.), Californians would be allowed to possess, cultivate, and transport up to one (1) ounce of Marijuana for personal use. It would still be illegal under federal law, so while we would be safe from the LAPD, the FBI could still potentially bust us. But the same is true for the medical Marijuana laws currently on the books in Cali, and as of 2009, we have the Obama administration's reassurance that the Fed has better things to do than bust Californians for lighting up in the safety of our own state.
Arguments for: Marijuana trade is a $15 billion-a-year business that currently is not taxed or regulated in any way. Plus, Prop 19's passage would take the sale of Marijuana out of the hands of violent drug cartels, free up space in our overcrowded prisons, and ensure that police attention/funds can be spent where it's needed more.
Arguments against: There's no test for drivers that is as quick and accurate as tests that we have for alcohol, which is why Mothers Against Drunk Driving vehemently opposes the bill. Also some federally-funded programs might lose some of their funding because they wouldn't be able to prove that they maintain a federally mandated drug-free workplace. See how it's important to stay up on all the important/popular issues?
At this point you're probably asking: Why should I go through the trouble of sorting through all these arguments? One vote couldn't possibly make a difference! Well, you're right: one vote almost certainly won't decide the outcome of an election. But I like to think of it this way: every time you make a decision, there are probably hundreds, maybe thousands of people making a similar one. Thus when you're deciding whether or not to take the trouble to go down to your local polling place and cast a ballot, there are possibly thousands of other people struggling over the same decision. And if you decide to vote, how many other hundreds of people will come to the same conclusion? Enough to influence an election?
Whenever I decide to support a candidate or to vote a certain way on a proposition, I do so with the tacit hope that other likeminded people are deciding the same. And conversely, every time I get hit with a wave of apathy, I get nervous that other people too are deciding to lay down the fight - thus I redouble my efforts and remind myself that if I can see this through, so can the rest of the state. Because no one voter can do it alone!