This year is my first federal election since I became a US Citizen in May of 2011. Last year I voted in the local elections for the first time. Voting in local elections is a little bit easier. You read the bios in the Voter’s Pamphlet, read the local newspaper, and read the city newsletter, and you get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
But in the State and Federal election cycle, things are harder. Someone once said that democracy is not easy—and it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, in this day and age, you can’t just vote for the person who you think has the best platform. You have to also be mindful of the other other candidates, and their platforms. These days, with two strong. well-funded parties (and the Top-2 primary system we have here in Washington State), you have to vote to ensure that at least one acceptable candidate makes the final ballot.
For those not aware of what the Top-2 Primary involves, let me go into a little bit of detail. For every ‘primary eligible’ position (i.e. everything from Governor to US Senator to State Insurance Commissioner ), you vote for a candidate, regardless of party affiliation. The top two candidates go to the November elections as the only two on the ballot. In a district (or state) where the region leans heavily to the left or right, it’s likely that both candidates will be from the same party. But in a split district, there is the chance that splitting the vote on one side (or both), could result in two candidates from the same party (or side of the political spectrum) being on the ballot, and the other side not represented at all.
For example, imagine your district is a heavily fragmented district with lots of candidates, where you like any of candidates A, B, or C, but you don’t like candidates D or E. If we assume A, B, and C split the votes on the left roughly equally, they’ll get 18, 16, and 12 percent. Then the other two split their half roughly equally. They get 27 and 23 percent, respectively. For the person who voted for candidate C (who let’s say was the farthest to the left in the political spectrum), this is a nightmare. Not only did their candidate not make the final ballot, the only two remaining are completely unacceptable.
So this means that the voter must choose the candidate they like that has the best chance to win, not the one they like the best. These are not equivalent concepts. The one with the best chance to win likely has the most amount of money, the backing from one of the two major parties, the best name recognition, the “right” gender or “right” race for the region. But they don’t necessarily have the best platform.
I think a much better voting system for primaries would be a ranking system where the voter ranks their preferences from 5 to 1 (but doesn’t have to give all votes out). So in the case above, the voter could give candidate C 5 points, Candidate B 4 and Candidate A 3 point, and not give any to D or E. The top 2 go on to the General Election. This should result in voters voting closer to their ideals, and steering the discussion more towards the direction they want the region / country to go, as opposed to “peer pressure” voting.
One of the other difficulties I had in filling out my ballot, was selecting people for the less publicized positions like Superior Court Judges and Insurance Commissioner. Coming from Canada, I don’t remember ever having to do this before. The Parliament appointed these positions, and I don’t remember that causing a lot of controversy. But maybe it did and I didn’t hear about it (entirely possible). What I worry about in selecting these positions is that a) you have an untrained electorate making decisions regarding law, and b) these positions become necessarily political because judges must make decisions that get them re-elected. This leads to the “legislating from the bench” syndrome we hear about on the media frequently. What’s a better solution? Well, I’m not sure. I just know that I felt unqualified to make these decisions.
It took me three evenings (about 2 hours total) to get through my entire ballot, reading the biographies in the voter’s pamphlets, and occasionally doing a little research on-line. There was one candidate I wanted to vote for, but knew that issue I raised above about splitting the vote could leave me with no one to vote for in the General Election. Luckily, the candidate I did vote for is a good candidate. They just don’t quite line up with my beliefs on all parts of their platform.
Even though I spent two hours voting, it still seemed like I was short-changed the process, especially on the lower profile positions. I don’t quite know how to rectify that personally, given the limited amount time I have available to do everything I need to do in an average day. You can’t know everything about every candidate. Democracy requires effort and honesty on everyone’s part. All I know is that I’ve done my best this time around, and hopefully, that inspires others to do the same.