Non voter guide to voting

December, 2010 -- For an article in the mainstream media that expresses ideas similar to those in this one, see Michael Lerner's Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post of Dec. 4, 2010

Voting for Non-voters

September, 2006 --This is addressed to nonvoters, as I once was, and to voters who aren't really interested in politics, as I still am not.

My purpose is to offer three simple rules for making election choices that when followed will give you more satisfaction from voting than you would have believed possible. More than that, you could become electorally more powerful than your neighbor with the campaign sign in his front yard.

These are the rules:

  1. In an election with multiple candidates arrayed along the left-right political continuum, vote for the one who is most extreme in the direction of your political orientation.
  2. In an election with only Republican and Democratic candidates, if they both sound alike, vote for the one who is trailing in the polls.
  3. In an election with multiple candidates where there is no obvious ideological continuum, vote for the least well known candidate.

In any of these situations, let it be known well in advance how you are going to vote.

In the remainder of this essay I explain the rationale for these rules.

Ranging Across the Political Spectrum

Voting for a candidate who represents an extreme position is a time-honored way to send a message of dissatisfaction with the status quo. But why reserve my first rule for special situations? Why not follow it in every election where there is a third-party candidate on your side of the political divide?

Suppose you're a liberal. If you vote for the Green Party candidate or whomever is available to the left of the Democratic Party, your vote will weigh more than if you give it to the Democrat, for at least two reasons. First, a stronger-than-expected vote for an extreme position can generate disproportionately more attention from the press. In this case the resulting coverage will probably highlight the failings of the Democrats to advance a sufficiently liberal agenda. Second, if you announce in some Internet forum that you're voting for a left-winger, it might enrage Democrats who otherwise might not have bothered to vote but who fear that you're contributing to splintering the liberal side. They'll turn out and vote Democratic, tilting the electorate in the direction you want it to go. In addition, some complacent Republicans who read your posting might decide to stay home. This is how your electoral intentions could have more influence than those of a major-party voter.

Positions of Two Candidates Seem Identical

In a two-candidate campaign where undecided voters could affect the outcome, each candidate will try to poach voters from the other party by making some statements that appeal to that party. The result will be a contest where the candidates cannot easily be differentiated. In effect, each candidate is trying to capture your vote by confusing you.

If you want to vote under these conditions, you could spend time reading and researching the candidates and ultimately figure out the true positions that are hidden behind their two-faced rhetoric. But this would cost you time and the mental effort of parsing nonsense. Voting shouldn't be so hard.

Instead, follow my second rule and, at no cost to you, give the candidates what they deserve: a contested outcome. Resolve to push the election toward a tie by voting for the one who is behind in the polls. If the polls already indicate an even race, flip a coin to make your choice.

If enough of us threaten to vote this way, the novelty of the phenomenon might attract news media attention. If this happens early enough in the campaign, it could affect the polls themselves. Pollsters would have to confront the fact that their dead-heat figures no longer represent political sentiment in the traditional sense. They might have to add another category to Republican/Democratic/Undecided; call it "Force T", for tie. In any case, the candidates would have to go back to saying what they actually believe!

Many Candidates, Few Issues

The election contests where it's hardest for us to make choices are those in which there seems to be so little at stake. These are for the city councils, the county commissions, on up to the level of the state legislatures. The candidates in these races are often running on their competence, not on their positions on issues. The number of candidates running for one of these offices is often more than two. This is where my third rule comes in.

Most likely you will know next to nothing about these candidates, but one or two names will be more familiar than the others. Most likely this familiarity will have come from their self-promotion, either by direct advertising or from their creation of events such as news conferences to which the news media are attracted. If nothing distinguishes one candidate from another but marketing, why vote for the most-marketed? Vote instead for the least known.

This is an extension of my second rule, and is intended to bring about an outcome that approaches a tie. Just as my second rule is for when candidates don't differentiate themselves, my third rule is for when the candidates haven't even had an opportunity to differentiate themselves because of lack of balanced attention by the news media.

Under these circumstances a tie, or the threat of one, is good medicine for democracy. It will attract attention that ultimately will lead to focusing on the substantive matters surrounding the election.

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Charles Packer