The American electoral system is not perfect, but it is pretty darn good. At regular intervals, Americans get to cast ballots for a president, congressional representatives, senators, governors, state legislators, county commissioners, city council members, mayors, sheriffs, auditors, judges, and a range of other local and statewide offices. Yet, notwithstanding the criticism about the gerrymandering efforts and voter suppression schemes that end up both in the news and in the courts, the system is also being misused by voters, many of whom don’t show up at all, while some show up trying to game the system.
About the former problem, I attribute it to frustration in some and to apathy in others. Relying on campaign rhetoric for their policy positions, many Americans buy into the modern version of the old wive’s tale that PR people call “talking points.” And just like Pavlov’s dog, those voters salivate when the appropriate bell is rung. We aren’t suffering political failures in this country because of our politicians. We are suffering because of our own rampant inattention to serious matters.
If we want our politicians to represent us, we have to take the time to learn about their policy positions and know who we are voting for. If more voters ignored electoral politics and paid attention to policy positions, we’d be better off. But these more complicated matters are swept aside, in favor of accusatory bombast. I don’t know any conservatives who read National Review or The Economist, and I only know a few liberals who read The New Republic or Mother Jones. As a result, frustration carries the day because reality fails to live up to the campaign rhetoric.
Some of the other problems that face our democracy revolve around efforts to game the system: watching the TV news polls and voting for the perceived “winner,” refusing to consider third-party candidates because they “can’t win,” and trying to alter the outcome by voting for the opposing party’s weaker candidate. These practices just skew the results and sometimes elect unpopular candidates by accident.
When elections are approaching, we need to pay attention, follow multiple news sources, listen to the candidates’ speeches, read informed commentaries, and get on candidates’ websites to figure out who they profess to be. I want to walk into my polling place informed, and I want my vote to be cast for someone who I want to be representing me. That’s what the word representative in the descriptor “representative democracy” means. I’m just one guy, but I believe that, if more people – more voters – would understand our political system and do the same thing, then our representatives might actually represent us.