When I was a child, my father was one of the volunteers who worked our local polling place. I remember long afternoons when I was small, sitting behind the tables or playing around the stage, while the neighbor ladies greeted voters and my father worked the machines. There were always snacks, and everyone was cheerful and friendly.
I think it was this, more than any other experiences (such as the substitute teacher who spent an entire morning teaching my class to vote — not, mind you, how to be an informed voter, just how to walk into the booth and flip the levers — early enough that by the time I was old enough to vote, they had replaced the flip-lever machines with electronic ones) that left me feeling that voting was just one of those things that responsible grownups did, like giving blood and contributing to National Public Radio.
Fast-forward to now. There was a primary election last week, my first as a Massachusetts resident. I was going to vote, of course. I’d tracked down my polling place, and found the website that showed me a sample ballot, and read up on candidate statements on their websites. And that’s where I got stuck. I couldn’t see anything notably different about the various candidates by reading their statements, hadn’t been listening to election news (I’d only gotten a radio a few weeks before), and didn’t have any feel for the candidates or the local issues.
So the afternoon of voting day, I wandered around my work, a place filled with educated, intelligent, socially conscious people, and started up conversations.
“Hi, do you have opinions on the election today? I don’t know who I’m voting for yet, and this is your chance to persuade me. I would like to hear who you think I should vote for and why.”
(I realize that there are a lot of workplaces where this would not be appropriate, or where people would not feel comfortable answering this question. Trust me that I felt that it was okay.)
The response was disappointing. I talked to close to 40 people. Of those, a handful were not US citizens, or still registered in their home states, both valid reasons to not have an opinion. A few more coworkers told me that they’d been so busy they hadn’t paid any attention, or that they were procrastinating and had not yet decided either. Only two had opinions beyond, “I have strong personal feelings about Candidate X,” and perhaps three more had feelings for or against one of the candidates in one of the races.
40 people, in a state where most of the decision-making is made in the primary elections, and almost no one knows who they’re voting for (and very few are even voting at all). And before those discussions, I would have described my coworkers as more politically active/interested than most people in the general population.
There you go, folks, representative democracy at work.
I don’t really know what’s wrong, or how we fix it. But maybe we should spend more time in our own backyards before we rush out to fix the problems of the world.