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Becoming an Informed Voter

Mick Stratton


This is a letter I wrote to my son and daughter about voting since this election will be the first time they can vote. I print it here because I think it can be beneficial to others. I hope you enjoy it!

Dear Ramsey and Max,

This is the first year you two will be able to vote. I am not writing this to tell you who you should vote for, but about the process you might use in deciding that important question. It is important that people vote intelligently, having developed a political philosophy, and studied the issues and the candidates.

The first step I think you should do is develop a political philosophy. To do this, you should become familiar with what government is about and what you believe it is capable of doing. Once you have a philosophy it will help you decide which candidate might best represent you. It will also help you decide if you want to belong to any of the several political parties.

What has helped me develop my philosophy is the concept of two different spectrums (continuums) which I like to use to analyze many issues.  I call these the Spectrum of Issue and the Spectrum of Intensity.

It is probably easiest to explain this with an example, Pro Life vs. Pro Choice. In regard to the Spectrum of Issue: On one end of the spectrum are those who believe anything that prevents conception should be illegal (no birth control). On the other end are those who believe that the woman should be able to abort the pregnancy, for any reason, up until delivery (including partial birth abortion). I imagine the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in between these two points. Do you believe a woman should be able to use birth control? Should abortions be outlawed after conception? What about rape and incest? Should it be allowed only during the first trimester? Up until viability? Thirty weeks, forty weeks? As you can see many who say they are pro-life or pro-choice really fall somewhere in-between, leaning more toward one or the other.

The second is Spectrum of Intensity.  Both pro-lifers and pro-choicers include individuals who consider this issue so important that it is the only thing they focus on when deciding whom to vote for. On the other end are those who couldn't care less and don't consider it when they are trying to decide on a candidate. Again, I imagine most Americans fall somewhere in-between.

So as you develop your political philosophy realize your views will more likely fall somewhere on a continuum and some issues will be more important to you than others. Nothing wrong with that.

As you read this, do not fall into the trap that the ends of any spectrum are necessarily bad and you should always fall somewhere else on the continuum. An example of this is slavery. Virtually all Americans believe no one should be forced to be a slave to another. This view is on one end of the spectrum, with the other being, if you are strong enough, it is proper to make anyone you can control your slave. I am glad the vast, vast majority of Americans feel as they do and are on the end of the spectrum against slavery.

The political philosophy you develop will be uniquely yours and almost assuredly will be modified over time. In other words, it is an ongoing process. Since government has many functions your philosophy should cover many areas. Here are a few you might want to consider:

Nationalism vs. Globalism

If you tend toward Nationalism, you are less apt to care about the rest of the world, putting most of your concern toward the wellbeing of the USA and possibly would like to see a weak United Nations (UN), or no UN at all. If you are more of a Globalist you are more interested in the rest of the world and may be supportive of a stronger UN even to the point it should make laws that all nations must follow and have taxing authority.

If you tend toward Globalism, you will probably be comfortable with the United States getting more involved in international affairs. Possibly helping with funds and weapons. If you are more of a Nationalist you probably want the United States less involved in international affairs, not contributing much, if any, funds or weapons to other countries.

Size of Government

If you believe that the government is responsible for the care of its citizens, and that the way to do this is give it more power and control, you will probably be in favor of a big, more intrusive, government. On the other hand, if you believe it's more up to the individual to take care of him/herself and tend to resent government interference, you probably are in favor of a smaller, less intrusive government.

Importance of Freedom vs. Security

I imagine that the vast majority of Americans want to be free and at the same time secure. Possibly there are situations where you can be both, but often you have to give up one for the other. If freedom is generally more important than security to you, you will probably want a smaller government with less laws. If you generally value security over freedom you might prefer a larger government with more laws.

Free Trade vs. Protectionism

If govermnets had nothing to do with trade it would truly be free, but that is not the case. Most countries make laws that they hope will benefit themselves and their citizens (protectionism). Fewer trade laws mean more free trade; more trade laws mean more protectionism.

Equality of Opportunity vs. Equality of Outcome

Virtually everyone believes in equality but what does this mean to them? One way to look at equality is to put it on a continuum with one end being “Equality of Opportunity” and on the other “Equality of Outcome.” Those who believe more in Equality of Opportunity normally do not expect the outcomes to be equal because of other factors such as physical and mental differences as well as environmental advantages such as families, communities and education.

Those who believe more in Equality of Outcome are not so much concerned about opportunity, as they are about results. These people tend to be concerned about inequities in wealth.

If you believe more in Opportunity, you will tend to be less supportive of affirmative action laws while if you are in the Outcome group you will tend to be more supportive. If you tend more toward distribution of wealth, you probably lean more toward Outcome; if you are against it, you probably lean more toward Opportunity.

Private Property vs. Common Ownership

On one end of this spectrum are those who believe all property should be private and the owners of the property should be able to do anything with their property they want. This includes their body. These individuals tend to be against laws concerning drugs, prostitution, personal safety and zoning. They also tend to be more in favor of capitalism and less so of socialism. These people would also tend be in favor of free trade allowing the owners to trade with any individual or country they desire.

The other end of the spectrum would be that the community (state) owns all property and has control over everything. This might include even the education people may receive and the profession they must enter. They would tend to be against capitalism and favor communism. This is one area where most people fall somewhere along the continuum, some more in favor of capitalism and some more in favor of socialism.

There are many other aspects of government and laws that you need to think about when developing a political philosophy, but I think you get the idea. On the surface you might think this is all that is needed and you will vote for the candidate who believes most like you. However, there are other considerations than just political philosophy. Here are some things that you might also consider when deciding on whom to cast your vote:

Studying the Candidates

Studying the candidates takes some time but it is very important if you want to make an intelligent vote. What do the candidates really believe? Can you trust the candidates? How strong of a leader are they? How capable are they of actually delivering on their campaign promises?

It is a lot easier to study the candidates today than in the past. Between technology and social media there is more video and written statements concerning past positions from the candidates than ever before. You can actually hear them talk or read what they said about their views in the past and compare it to now to see how consistent they are. While doing this, remember that people can change their positions because of changes in society or world events. The opponents of any particular candidate will usually say the candidate “flip-flopped” for votes. This may be true, or it could be that over time his/her position changed. I know that over the past 60 years of studying the issues I have modified my thoughts and positions.

Lastly, be suspicious of the news media. Often those in the media say they are not taking sides, but they are. I would rather get my information from partisans from both sides of an issue than from those who pretend to be non-biased (we are all biased). A very good website to get information from is http://www.realclearpolitics.com/?state=nwa. This is because, on most issues, it has opinions from those on either side. Read both sides and then come to your own conclusions.

Character and Believability

How important is it to you about such things as honesty, truthfulness and faithfulness? The vast majority of us consider these important traits but weighing their importance against other factors might cause us to vote for someone who may lack in these areas.

It is important what we think of the believability on what the candidates say. However, no one is perfect, all having lied, been less than honest, or less than faithful to the issues. It is very possible that a candidate of less character may be a better person for the job than one who has more character; or if you believe the character flaws are equal, who do you believe will do a better job according to your philosophy? For some people character is of utmost importance, for others not so much (Intensity).

Why vote?

Why should you vote in any particular race? Ideally you want to vote for a particular candidate because you believe he/she will do the best for the country in that office. Sometimes you don't think any of the candidates will do much good and therefore you vote for a candidate because you believe he/she will do the least harm. That is not ideal, but it is quite reasonable. If there are more than two candidates, you might vote for someone who you are quite certain won't win. A friend may chastise you and say you are throwing away your vote and you should vote for the one who you believe will do the least harm. However, you may believe the other candidates are equally bad and you are using your vote to make a statement.

Lastly, why vote at all? If you believe there is no one you can vote for in good conscience, you are in fact making a statement by not voting. In this upcoming election the winner may be elected because of how many didn't bother to vote rather than how many did. Not voting because you don't like any of your options is not the same as not voting because you're too lazy!

Probability of Candidate to Get Things Done

Normally you would vote for the person who most agrees with you, but is that always a good idea? One of the qualities you might look at when deciding your vote is how strong of a leader are the candidates? Let's say Candidate X wants to get done 80% of the things you want, but Candidate Y wants to get done only 60% of what you want. It seems fairly obvious who you should vote for until you consider the likelihood of success. If you believe that Candidate X can only succeed getting done 20% of what you want and Candidate Y can succeed at getting done 40% of what you want, then it might be wiser to vote for Candidate Y.

I know I have given you much to think about considering this is your first election. I hope you listen to my advice and start the process of developing your own philosophy and becoming an informed voter. Both of you know how I will vote. Of course I would like for you to vote as I will, but as your father it is much more important to me that you make up your own mind based on your political philosophy and being informed.

I love you both so very much,