I can still recall my excitement as I drove to the polling place to vote for the very first time. My heart sank, however, when I entered the voting booth and saw the extensive ballot. I recognized a few names, so those votes were easy. But I was befuddled by the long list of names and elected offices I did not know. In the end, I left many of the boxes blank and exited the voting booth feeling like a failure.
The United States has more elected officials than any other nation (about half a million of them!), so it is no wonder that voting can seem overwhelming. As I will discuss in this essay, however, many resources are available to help us learn about the candidates and make an informed decision. As Election Day draws near, I’d like to offer some advice on preparing to vote and share some concluding observations from my participation in the Alternative Political Conversation.
Preparing to Vote
What can you do to prepare for Election Day? Before choosing between candidates, determine which political issues matter the most to you, learn more about the different offices up for election this year in your area, and research candidates for each office.
Given the diversity of issues raised in a political campaign and the even wider range of topics elected officials are likely to consider over the course of a term in office, it seems impossible to find any candidate with whom you will agree completely. How do we determine which issues should be most important when making our vote choices?
Some people select the one issue they believe is most important and evaluate all candidates based on it. If you are so passionate about a particular issue that you believe it always outweighs all of the other policies an elected official is likely to address while in office, single issue voting can make sense.
In practice, however, single issue voting rarely works well. Sometimes political opponents agree, so you cannot choose between them. In other cases, the role and duties of office may have little or nothing to do with the identified issue. If your single issue is broadening access to health care, for example, you will likely have a clear choice between candidates for Congress, but the issue will be of little use when voting for Sheriff.
I think it is wise to evaluate candidates on the basis of several issues at the same time. To do this, search Scripture, read political writings from respected Christians, and pray for guidance. In the end, construct a list of those issues you believe are most important. You may decide that some issues are non-negotiable; that is, certain policy positions are so important that a candidate must share your views on them to earn your vote. In such cases, skip voting in those races where neither candidate shares your views. Also create a list of priority issues, those issues most important for each elected office, and select the candidate who shares your views on the largest number of them. I hope that the essays we have presented in the Alternative Political Conversation and the comments they have generated will be a useful resource for applying your faith to a range of political issues and ranking which concerns should have highest priority.
Other resources can also help you prepare to vote. A useful first step is finding out what races are on the ballot in your precinct. Websites like http://www.vote411.org/ offer links to voting information for most states. Web searches with the name of your county and “elections commission” will usually direct you to searchable site to view a copy of your exact ballot.
Once you find a sample ballot, research the various candidates. I recommend visiting the candidates’ official websites to learn about their background, experience, and issue positions. Such sites of course show only one side of the story, but they present information clearly and are can be quite useful for comparing candidates side-by-side.
Ultimately, candidates are flawed, just like all of us. Deciding whom to support often requires you to balance competing priorities and sometimes requires choosing between two unsatisfactory choices. I have found an occasional voting decision so difficult or have been so uncomfortable with my choices that I have intentionally chosen none of the above. If you have significant misgivings about all of the candidates running for a particular office, I recommend skipping that race and voting in the other races on the ballot.
Concluding Observations as Election Day Approaches
My work on this project has helped me see the complexity of public policy in new ways. I know that issues that appear simple are really complex and that every issue has far more than two sides. But the experience of researching topics and trying to distill my comments into 1,000 words or less has been far more challenging than I ever imagined.
If we listen only to candidates and campaign ads, solutions seem clear, and policy paths always lead on a straight path. But simple slogans and quick fixes mask the complexity of seeking solutions in a broken world with broken people and institutions. In my earlier postings, I have tried to highlight some key tensions related to each policy topic, briefly discuss some possible options for public policy, and point readers to ways that we as the church can be meeting needs and making a difference. As you continue the conversation this election season and beyond, seek opportunities for charitable discussion and debate about ways that government and the church can help address entrenched problems and promote biblical values.
Finally, model Christian charity in your political engagement. Before speaking about political opponents or characterizing their positions, apply the Golden Rule: Would you want someone speaking of you and your policy positions in the same way that you speak of them? Stand firm against mean-spirited, false, and misleading political talk. Gently rebuke friends and family who use hateful or divisive speech. Most importantly, seek to model Christian virtues in the ways that you talk about and approach politics. In politics, as in every other sphere of life, we should honor and love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.