Monday, July 19, 2010

Oh No, Politics Again!

That’s the thought that runs through my head about this time, in even-numbered years, when hundreds of political advertisement signs sprout up along the roadsides near my home. This sudden ‘fruiting’ of the world of politics means I have some work to do. Our local primaries are tomorrow, with at least two runoffs expected, and then of course there’s the big election in November.

On a personal level I’m not too fond of politicians, and I’ll tell you why. When I was in high school I had to take an American Government class; your school might have titled the same class ‘Civics.’ One of the requirements for passing the class was to work twenty or more hours as a volunteer in a local political campaign. My parents were friends with a county commissioner who was running for re-election so I joined his campaign. Silly me, I thought I was participating in honest democracy.

My twenty hours of volunteer work had exactly the opposite effect my teacher had hoped. Poor Mrs. Landry, she just wanted us to experience the electoral process. Instead I discovered that politicians will say whatever they think the people want to hear in order to get elected. The guy whose campaign I was working on actually bragged about how smart he was and how stupid the voters were to believe him. He got a friend to join the race in order to draw votes away from an opponent. He had his volunteers go out under cover of darkness and pull up opponents’ signs. And it went downhill from there. I have to admit, one night after I came home from working in the campaign office, I just sat there and cried.

When I turned eighteen I dutifully registered and voted, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I realized that what I had seen at the local level only magnified as it moved up into state and federal politics. Thankfully, over the years I mellowed a little and the readings on my Disillusionment Meter dropped back into the normal range. As I learned more about human history, going back into ancient times, I discovered that people have always been this way. It’s nothing new. It must just be human nature. So I determined to outwit the politicians.

Some of my friends think I have an odd attitude about politics, and maybe I do. Here’s the thing: I never listen to what the politicians say. I learned, way back in high school, that politicians will say whatever the hell they want in order to get votes. So I don’t listen to advertisements, I don’t watch debates and I ignore the roadside signs. What I do is research.

I figured out that a politician’s previous voting record is a remarkably accurate indicator of how they will behave in the future. I also figured out that where their money comes from is the main indicator of how they might change their voting behavior (or maintain it). I find these two pieces of information to be vital to making a choice on election day. How do I find this information?

Project Vote Smart. It’s the single best source of accurate information on U.S. elections out there. Type in your zip code or browse through the levels of government (President, Congress, Federal, State, Local). Vote Smart is always my first stop when I’m researching candidates.

When I can’t find what I want on Vote Smart, I google the candidate’s name plus the words “voting record” or “financial contributions.” That usually gives me what I need. This works for any political race, anywhere in the world. OK, maybe not China.

I also discovered another trick to outwit the politicians-vs.-the-people system. In the 2008 election I had over thirty different offices to vote for, from local up to federal level, plus several local and state referenda. There’s no way I can memorize that many choices. So I ordered an absentee ballot.

Most U.S. states now allow you to order an absentee ballot without having to specify a reason for needing it. Check Vote411, a website run by the education fund of the League of Women Voters, for information on how to get an absentee ballot in your state (and how to register to vote online, find your polling place, determine election dates and more). Many other nations now also allow absentee balloting without having to justify your need for one; check with your local election officials.

Here’s what I do: I order an absentee ballot well in advance of the election so I’m not pressed for time. I sit down at the computer with the ballot and start researching the candidates using the methods I outlined above. In 2008 it took me just over an hour to find all the information I needed and make about three dozen voting decisions (VoteSmart was a big help in this regard). I figure, that’s time well spent. Just an hour every two years to make informed decisions that will affect my life at all levels.

When I’m done I simply mail in my ballot. Actually, I have to admit, I don’t mail it in right away. My husband copies my choices onto his ballot as well - now that’s real marital trust! But then, we have very similar political views, so it works out well.

I hope you can find encouragement here and do your own research for the upcoming election. It doesn’t matter what your political views are. The important thing is to find out what the politicians are really going to do once they’re in office, regardless of what they say on the campaign trail. That’s real, nitty-gritty information that will help you make decisions you won’t regret once the polls close.