Oregon elections were our first encounters with mail-in ballots instead of polling places. I admit, I feel a bit nostalgic about those polling places, with their forests of signs just outside the legal perimeter, the voting booths, the election workers behind their folding tables, and the impressive ballot boxes waiting to aggregate the will of the people. But I've really come to enjoy spreading all the election materials and voting guides and endorsements on a table and taking as long as I want to make my ballot choices. Maybe the herd-mobilization dimension is lessened, but, for me, the ballot itself becomes more of the focus rather than the social act of voting.
Not many other places have mail-in ballots, but the idea of voting routinely ahead of the formal election day seems to be catching on. Paul Gronke of Portland's Reed College and the Early Voting Information Center has been documenting and analyzing this trend. In this year's USA elections, apparently about a third of the voting public will have already cast their ballots by election day. That means an increasing number of us have already voted each day that the campaign advertisements continue to try to influence us with oversimplified versions of their positions or lies about their opponents (sometimes as idiotic in substance as they are ominous in tone--witness the Obama/terrorist thread running through Republican campaigning).
Creative campaigning takes many forms, including the fake "pro" arguments we've come to expect in some voting guides. In Oregon, the voting guides for state and local ballot measures will publish pro and con arguments pretty much uncensored; the cost is $500. This year my favorite was a "pro" argument from someone actually opposed to the measure in question, which would limit bilingual education. (Which of these arguments is not like the others?) I wonder: Is this technique popular elsewhere?
Here's a dialogue I used with my students in Elektrostal a day or two before the Russian Duma elections last December:
Sam: "Hey, what's up? You're in a hurry...."
Vicki: "I've been planning to vote all day, but somehow I didn't get free until just now."
Sam: "Come on, you're really that hot to vote? Relax! One less vote won't make a difference. We all know who's going to win."
Vicki: "Right, I do know. If you don't vote, Mr. Apathy wins."
Sam: "That's not what I meant, and you know it. Every Democratic candidate has taken this county for the last thirty years."
Vicki: "Yeah, we'll probably get the same mayor and the same sheriff. It's hard to take their challengers seriously. But the presidential race and the congressional race are really close. They're both up for grabs."
Sam: "Don't make me laugh. There will be more than our two votes separating the winner and the loser."
Vicki: "It's the principle of the thing. If enough people don't get into the habit of doing the right thing every time, we can totally kiss democracy goodbye. The party machines will run everything."
Sam: "What do you mean, 'the machines'?"
Vicki: "You know, the politicians, their paid helpers, their fan clubs. The people who who show up at party meetings, who work the phone banks, who go door-to-door...."
Sam: "What's wrong with that? If they care, let them care. They're all the same, anyway."
Vicki: "How do you know they're all the same? You're just letting the crowd think for you. It's not necessarily smart to assume the worst, but it sure is easy."
Sam: "Right. You think that, when the dust settles and the results come out, we'll have a whole new world? Those guys say whatever they think we want to hear. Then, the day after election day, it's back to business as usual."
Vicki: "And we'll have couch potatoes like you to thank."
Sam: "Wait a minute. That's not quite fair. You were the one who brought up the party machines."
Vicki: "It's not that they shouldn't exist. But it's not their job to run the country. It's their job to convince me to vote for their candidates. The only way they will know if they've made a good case for their candidates is if I vote for them."
Sam: "Sure. They're just waiting to find out if Vicki showed up--along with her 40,000,000 friends."
Vicki: "I'm not just one of forty million. Look at it this way. Every election, each side gets a predictable number of votes. That's their core support. Unless their candidate is a total slug, they can count on that vote. The difference between winning and losing is convincing undecided voters. And that means us—people who aren't born politicians."
Sam: "Exactly: I'm undecided. I can't decide who to vote for because I don't believe any of them."
Vicki: "You 'don't believe'--or you haven't paid attention? Making a decision implies using your brain."
Sam: "OK, OK, you've made your point. I get it. Let's go over to the school and get it over with--on one condition."
Vicki: "Great. Name it."
Sam: "We go get some coffee right after we vote. Then you can tell me more about what a huge difference my vote made."
Vicki: "Excellent! The point is, no matter who you vote for, and no matter who wins, every vote is a vote for our country."
Righteous links: Cherice Bock's professor asks, "What would you do if you found out the voting machines were rigged?" ~~ Ideas have power that apologies cannot mask. "Having eyes, do you not see?" ~~ Chandrayaan-1, India's first moon mission. ~~ "All aboard the atheist bus campaign." ~~ Margaret Benefiel on "filling the values vacuum." ~~ Why Andy Crouch is hopeful. (Thanks to Alan Rutherford for the reference.) ~~ Sean Guillory recommends "sorting out South Ossetia" with the help of the BBC's Tim Whewell.
Here's one for Ricky! Will Owen-Gage, Jay Boy Adams, Flaco Jimenez, Ronnie Leatherman, with a delicious version of "Key to the Highway."
See the video on its Youtube page for commentary and related links.