Saturday, November 06, 2010

Rock the Vote?

Details get fuzzy after 20 years, but I clearly recall, as a seventh grade student, being told, shortly after election day, to get a sticker from my social studies teacher. Apparently, everyone who had a voting parent was to receive such a sticker. The prospect of receiving a sticker held about as much appeal for me then as it would now. I think I got over stickers when a vindictive custodian forcibly removed them from my desk (along with all of my classmates' desks) in second grade. But feeling obligated, I trudged to the front of my room and asked for said sticker. My teacher peered at me skeptically and with a tone of suspicion demanded to know if my parents had voted. I truthfully informed him that they had, and he begrudgingly doled out the reward, but I remember being completely prepared to return to my desk without a sticker if the situation required any further attempt at persuasion. I don't recall what I did with the sticker, though I doubt it lasted 24 hours. Interestingly, 14 years later, I would leave a polling place in Kentucky with a sticker of my own, as a reward for my participation in the democratic process. (I likewise have no memory of the fate that befell this particular item, though it wouldn't shock me if the sticker of my adulthood somehow ended up cosmically joined with the sticker of my youth).

Another voting memory: The first time I was eligible to cast a ballot, as a senior in high school, a gentleman by the name of Patrick Crooks was running for the state of Wisconsin's Supreme Court. Crooks ended up winning, though no thanks to one of my classmates who voted against him. When I discussed the election with this classmate, he informed me in all seriousness that he voted for Crooks's opponent because it didn't seem right to have a guy named Crooks on the Supreme Court. When I told him that this seemed like a rather dumb reason to cast a ballot, he said with righteous indignation: "It was either that or not vote!", as if the simple act of voting, not the intent or the outcome, is what mattered most. (I later talked to another classmate who said that he voted for Crooks precisely because he did want a Crooks on the Supreme Court; both of these people, it can be pointed out, were academically high achievers).

More recently, in last week's election, I saw individuals castigated, both in-person and on-line, for make the declaration that they would not be voting. I also saw the standard voter appeals, the "rock the vote," "commit to vote," and "get to the polls" appeals. I saw die-hard liberals and conservatives, against all reason, urge people of the opposite political persuasion to counteract their efforts.

But of course one doesn't need to be thrust into the middle of a political cycle to see that we are a nation that is obsessed with voting (and polling). I realize that one click of a mouse is not all that demanding, but to me, that still seems like too much to ask to vote in a meaningless on-line poll. But go to any media website and you'll see some asinine poll question (A couple random ones I just found through googling: The Detroit Free Press is wondering what you wear to bed, The Fort Worth Star Telegram is asking if Gov. Perry will run for president in four years, and Channel 5 in Cleveland is wondering if you found $3,600 in the street, if you'd return it). And I know that people actually do vote in these polls--when I worked for a radio station I used to come up with poll questions for our station's website. I suspect that many people took longer in considering how to cast their vote than I did in thinking of actual questions. And then there is Dancing With the Stars, American Idol, or any number of made-for-TV competitions in which "America votes." And finally, the last couple of years, my enjoyment of baseball games has been marginally decreased by having to sit through the "text to vote" segment, in which viewers are asked to text "A,B,C, or D" in response to what is usually a question that panders to popular sentiment (example: this year Milwaukee Brewer fans were asked to vote on the "greatest milestone achievement" in baseball in 2010, with Trevor Hoffman's 600th save sitting alongside accomplishments by players who didn't happen to be Milwaukee Brewers. Guess who won that vote?).

If America was a species, it would be easy to understand this phenomenon. We would say that the drive to vote is in our DNA--it is an instinct crucial to our survival. (And perhaps in a figurative sense, this may not be inaccurate). But just as some of our genetic predispositions can, left unchecked, end up harming us rather than ensuring our survival, the notion that voting is automatically good is dangerous. Informed voting, based on critically thinking through issues and positions, is good. Voting for the sake of voting, in order to conform to a cultural expectation, is not. The nonpartisan "get out and vote" appeals are well-intentioned, but I believe are ultimately more harmful than helpful. If people aren't intrinsically motivated to vote, I don't want them voting. But even more than that, I don't want any more stickers.


Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

I am one of those above referenced individuals who, in a non-partisan message, urged others, via Facebook, to vote. However my intention was partisan. I figure the majority of my Facebook friends are liberal so an increased voter turnout would help "my" side. I would not have posted the same message on the National Review's website.

10:59 PM  

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