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Check Box Voting…Contextual Voting

How should we decide where to spend our votes?

My work in political consulting has given me an inside view of electoral politics. On behalf of my current client, I’ve spent the year making pitches to various special-interest groups, often with radically differing views of what they want government to do. These groups tend to make long lists of specific requirements for candidates to meet in order to gain their support.

At a recent democratic legislative district meeting, a woman suggested a “no endorsement” for the district’s very democratic incumbent State Representative. “He’s never supported our platform 100%,” she argued.

Elected politicians operate independently of the local organized party and platforms. Should this State Representative align his legislative positions on the platform of his legislative, county, or state party?

Party platforms, like the platforms of most special-interest groups, are created in a vacuum. They are elaborate sketches of a ship that will never float. These groups spend hours drawing their plans with one key factor missing: opposition.

Drafting a platform without an understanding of opposition is like designing a ship without considering the properties of water. If you never have to test your theories, then the specifics of your design are meaningless.

Elected officials operate in the real world of politics. They have to present legislation and ideas that can “float” in the face of radically opposite ideologies.

Many of us follow the pattern of special-interest groups; we create check boxes of our issues, and support politicians who align with them as closely as possible.

Is this the most productive way to spend our vote? To see the results of this thinking, we can hold up the candidacy of Ralph Nader in the 2000 election; many who voted for Nader did so out of a sense of duty to their own convictions. And yet, the direct result of their actions was to move the country further away from their ideals.

The ship of state is a large vessel, and turning that ship takes coordinated and patient effort. The Naderites expected the ship to make an immediate 90 degree turn to the left; in their zeal, they failed to realize that ships and politics don’t work that way.

If the ship of state is pointed even 1 degree in the wrong direction, over a period of time, the results can be dramatic, taking us miles off course. Rather than seeking to radically alter the course of the ship, we should first work to ensure that it is pointed at least 1 degree in the right direction. Over time, that 1 degree will take us towards our desired destination. Steer the ship 1 degree in the wrong direction, and we will soon be miles away from our goal.

In place of check box voting, I use something I call contextual voting. I weigh the pulse of the country, the strength of the opposition, and then I look to see which of my ideals has opportunity to move forward at this time. I give my vote to candidates who can effectively keep the ship of state headed in the right direction, even if only in small degrees. My ideology has to be tempered by the context in which my vote is being cast; to ignore that context is to waste valuable time and effort.

I have strongly held beliefs and ideals. I wish that many things in our society operated differently. But, I also realize that steering the ship of state is a coordinated effort, with many hands at the wheel. This requires me to emphasize some of my ideals while being patient on others.

Contextual voting gives me hope by forcing me to take a long-term view; when I get caught in check box voting, I am left with despair because my specific platform hasn’t gained attention or support.