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Having spent the last several posts in a discussion of politics I thought it might be worthwhile to do one more and break on through to the other side as they say, but I promise this will be the last post for awhile on the topic. And for this last post I’d like to talk about voting. Obviously this is the key way we participate in politics as citizens of the United States. Which is not to overlook the people who attend caucuses, or go door-to-door with a local candidate, or even run for office, but not only are such people rare, they probably already have a pretty good idea how they want to vote. I think they could nevertheless benefit from what I say here, but it is still primarily directed at people whose highest engagement with politics is voting. Of course, we haven’t even touched on the significant percentage of people who don’t even do that, despite the impassioned pleas of celebrities and the desperation of political parties, and in the case of members, the Church itself. (I would be curious to know what percentage of temple recommend holders vote.) I actually don’t blame people for not voting. It’s exceedingly rare that a single vote makes a difference, and economically when you consider the opportunity cost it definitely seems like a waste of time.
Still we are urged to vote, and I have actually seen a small number of votes make a difference. It was a local bond issue, and my wife and I voted against it. Had we voted for it, the vote would have been tied. So I have personally seen a situation where two votes made a difference, though it hardly ever happens, and if it does, it’s only in smaller elections.
Of course while being strongly urged to vote, the Church does not, despite the fear-mongering of its more radical opponents to the contrary, tell us who to vote for. They leave that to the individual, perhaps secure that we’ll do the right thing, but what is the right thing exactly? That’s what I want to explore, and I’m not confident that I’ll reach any definitive conclusions but perhaps in the act of exploration we’ll uncover some wisdom.
There are many methodologies for picking who to vote for, some obviously better than others. To get us started let’s look at one of my favorite, but most narrowly useful methodologies. Voting for people you know. Given that we are technically a republic not a democracy, in most cases you don’t get to decide what happens you only get to decide who get’s to decide what happens. And if that decision maker is someone who you can call on the phone and actually talk to, that substantially increases their utility. Lobbying is built around a very similar concept, which is why it’s so popular, even if we believe the defenders that it merely provides access not influence. For this reason, I’ll confess that this is the method I use first when deciding who to vote for. In addition to giving me a marginally greater say in the workings of government it’s also quick. Many of the methods we’re going to discuss require a lot of study and might still yield an unclear result. Not this one. As I said it’s not something I can draw on very often, and on some occasions, such as local elections, I might know both people. Thus, whatever the benefits of this method it is not universally applicable, which requires that we have additional methods to draw on.
Certainly if we can take any political lesson from the scriptures it would involve the great harm caused by unrighteous leaders. Of course most of the leaders in question are kings, and as of 1783 we don’t have one of those. But I would certainly expect that if someone demonstrably wicked was running for office that you wouldn’t vote for them. I imagine there are many people on both sides in the current election who feel like there is some demonstrable wickedness going on in the presidential race, but I’ve always had a hard time determining how righteous someone is. Without knowing their heart, evaluating their righteousness is at best inexact and at worst might result in labelling good evil and evil good. More commonly any such an attempt is subjective, and prone to an overweighting of some things and an underweighting others. For example is it better to have an adulterer or an embezzler as a leader? I would probably say it would be better to have an adulterer, but isn’t adultery a more serious sin than embezzling? Which sins do we tolerate? If we aren’t willing to tolerate a serious amount of lying then it’s going to be hard to find anyone to vote for.
Lately we have had access to more LDS candidates, most notably Mitt Romney. Perhaps if we just had LDS members to choose from at all levels that would solve the problem? Unfortunately I don’t think so. The two most prominent Mormon politicians are Romney and Harry Reid, and you are unlikely to find someone who would vote for both of them. Furthermore, at the local level you will frequently find that two LDS people are running against each other. Finally, having a religious test strikes even co-religionists as distasteful.
By this point you may be wondering when I’m going to talk about the method of just voting on the issues, well in essence this is just a very watered down version of trying to judge someone’s righteousness. And it sounds great in theory, but in practice there are hidden difficulties. First it requires you to get out of the political my team vs. your team mentality I described in a previous episode. And once you really start looking at the issues and thinking deeply about them you’ll find that it’s only very rarely that a candidate lines up exactly the same as you do on every issue. Often you can totally agree with them on one issue and find their stand on another issue to be completely repugnant. Or what’s worse their stand on an issue may be unclear. And that doesn’t even take into account the strong possibility that they’ll say one thing while campaigning but do something entirely different once they’re actually elected.
Confronted with the difficulty of trying to track dozens of issues, uncovering not only the candidates position but your own feelings about it, and then further attempting to prioritize all those positions in some fashion, many people give up and decide to simplify things by becoming single issue voters. If you’re only focused on one thing then your research is greatly simplified. If all you care about is whether someone is pro-life you don’t have to listen to their foreign policy speech. While this may simplify things it can also leave you in no better position than you were before. For instance in a two party system you can easily end up in a situation where both candidates have the same position on an issue. They may disagree or agree with you, but it hardly matters because you’re left in a situation where despite having a very firm position on an issue, you don’t have any way of differentiating. They’re both great on your issue or they’re both horrible.
Of course there are more than two parties, and that’s what I’ve been building towards, and it’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to get out of the my team vs. the other team political headspace that’s so prevalent. Yes, it’s almost certainly true that if you don’t vote for Clinton or Trump in this election then you have wasted your vote, in the sense that your candidate, be it Stein or Johnson or whoever, can’t possibly win regardless of whether you voted for them or not. And it can be difficult to watch the Republican-Democrat football game and not get caught up in it, to even realize that there’s another option. But I think if you are going to follow the advice of the brethren and vote you should really consider all of the candidates. Once you do, and further once you give up on the idea of wasting your vote, choosing a candidate becomes far less objectionable, and frankly more straightforward.
Now I am not going to get into dissection of the platform of the Libertarian Party or the Greens, or even the Party of Socialism and Liberation. What I am going to address is the argument that if you don’t vote Republican or Democrat that you have wasted your vote. To begin with, in practice, unless an election comes down to a single vote you have wasted your vote regardless of who you vote for. But of course voting goes beyond merely deciding the outcome of an election, it is also a way to express your point of view. A somewhat crude way, but it’s undoubtedly true that once a winner has been determined, the next question is to ask by how much they won. If someone wins by 0.2% (or loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College) they have a substantially different mandate than if they win by 23%. And of course 23% is a landslide. It’s a shellacking. It’s a pummeling.
If Clinton or Trump were to achieve that level of victory it would be historic. People would be talking about it for a long time, just like they talk about Reagan beating Mondale. But here’s where it gets interesting that 23% margin of victory I just barely mentioned actually comes from Nixon beating McGovern. Does anyone talk about that anymore? Particularly given that just a couple of years later Nixon resigned?
My point is that if you vote for one of the two major parties your vote is going to get lost in the flood of all the other votes. And even if your vote helped Nixon to the fourth biggest margin of victory in history (and the biggest in the last 50 years) in two years it might all be forgotten. But when we turn to third party candidates the “flood” is more of a trickle and so it takes a lot fewer votes to make an impact. People are still talking about Nadar’s run in 2000 and he only ended up with 2.75% of the vote.
If you know that your vote is not going to make the difference in the actual outcome of election. That you’re only left with two reasons to vote. You can either vote because it’s your duty or because you want to send a message (or possibly both.) It doesn’t necessarily matter what message you’re trying to send. If you’re a Trump supporter perhaps, looking at the polls, you might want to make sure he doesn’t get slaughtered in a fashion similar to Mondale, or Goldwater. If you’re a Clinton supporter perhaps you think she’s got it in the bag, but you would love to make Utah a swing state. But if you are going to try and make this statement with one of the two major parties you have to look at how much of a percentage your candidate has to get for a statement to really be made. In almost all cases your vote is going to make more of a splash if it’s part of the 2.75% than if it’s part of the 50%.
In saying this I am not saying that you can’t vote for one of the two major parties, I only suggest that if there is a third party which matches your ideology more closely that you should definitely consider voting for them. That is not a wasted vote. And if it really is our duty to vote and if it really is something the brethren want us to take seriously shouldn’t be be looking for the truly best candidate regardless of their chances of winning?
Interestingly the church structure itself bears some interesting parallels which might even point in the direction of a third party. First when people are called to a position in the Church it has very little to do with seniority. We’ve all heard of cases of bishops who are in their 20’s or Stake Presidents who are in their 30’s. When you look at the two major parties do you ever get a sense that a lot of times the candidate is just the one who’s turn it is? That’s certainly the case with Hillary in this election and I think it was the case with Romney and McCain in the previous elections. If we look past the obvious candidates when calling people to serve in Church, how much more should we do the same when looking for a presidential candidate?
And further there’s the process of sustaining people. You may think of raising your hand to sustain someone as voting for one of the two parties. Most of the time that appears to be the only choice available, but if you really feel strongly you do have the option to raise your hand and oppose a calling. I don’t recommend it unless you really do have misgivings (and I certainly think those people who are doing it at General Conference are misguided) but, the point I’m trying to get at is how impactful that is. If you’ve ever been in a local meeting where someone raised their hand to oppose a calling, then it’s a situation people are still talking about. It’s the same way in the presidential elections. When you break with the pack and vote for a third party people notice. And yes there’s a lot of pressure to not do it (another parallel) but, I would say that in elections you shouldn’t let that stop you.
In case it’s not clear the primary methodology I recommend (after voting for people you know) is to vote for the best candidate, regardless of the party. I know it seems like a radical idea, but it shouldn’t. In the Book of Mormon, Mosiah 29:27 we read that:
And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.
I personally think we’re fast approaching that point if we haven’t already, and it’s possible that we are already at the point where if we stick with the two major parties then we have no choice but to choose iniquity. And then aren’t we partially culpable for that choice?
To be honest this episode did not start out as a full-throated defense of third parties, though that does appear to be what it ended up as. I will say that personally I have never voted for one of the two main presidential candidates. I say this not to boost, but more to point out that it has been a long-standing obsession of mine. I do think we need greater third party participation in the whole process. I am pretty fed up with both the Republicans and Democrats. And If you’re not, if you have thought deeply about the issues and Trump or Clinton is your preferred candidate, then vote for them with a clear conscience and my blessing, but if you are planning to vote while holding your nose perhaps it would make more sense to look at one of the third party candidates before you do. You might find someone who makes you hold your nose a little bit less. And rather than wasting your vote you’d be sending a message at least as clear as whatever message you might send by voting for a Republican or a Democrat.
One final voting methodology as a bonus for people who’ve read this far. If you have a system of judicial retention like we do in Utah, and I’m honestly not sure how widely this practice is used, then you should always vote NOT to retain any of the judges (unless you know them personally, see my first point). The reason for this is that for the most part judges are always retained with over 90% of the vote, and so your vote not to retain will have no impact for any judge who’s even halfway competent, but if there is a judge out there who isn’t getting 90% or at least 80% then they really should go, and by voting not to retain them you can help out that process. We had a situation just like this many years ago, in this case I had heard of the judge in question, but because I was using this method it didn’t matter whether I had heard about him or not, I helped get him off the bench. Of course this also relates to my general bias against incumbency, but we’re already pretty far into things so I’ll save that for another time.