In response to Ralph Nader’s relentless calls, high school social studies classes may devote a special hour this month to teach school children about the American electoral system. But it’s their parents, the voters, who need the crash course in civics. And quickly. We have less than two weeks to become real participants in our democracy. How can this happen when citizens are gripped by 24/7 coverage of a made-for-TV national blockbuster fed by ceaseless new corruption and sex revelations and deepening personality clashes of celebrity candidates?
In the days remaining before we cast our votes, there’s little likelihood that ignorance and confusion about the 435 House races can be addressed so that voters can make intelligent choices. Since their outcome will decide the balance of power in the US Congress, why are we not preparing ourselves, to make our vote in our home districts count?
Take the state I am familiar with–New York. New Yorkers pride themselves on having a political sophistication, but are actually woefully ill-informed. About the presidential circus, everyone I meet can volunteer lengthy comments; they quote press accounts of gaffs, policy shortcomings, poll numbers and the latest satirical skit. They may know the name of their incumbent congressman or woman, but not if they’re running again, how many terms they’ve served or who their opponent is. And races for the state senate or assembly? Forget those.
In just one campaign in this state, the problem is readily apparent from a sample of neighbors: “I want to know what a congressperson actually does,” announces Kathryn, a short-tempered resident who’d all but given up on politics. She plans to attend our meeting with District 19’s candidate and it’s evident that even though she’s 60ish and a professional who works with the public, Kathryn has never spoken to a member of the US Congress, not even to a congressional candidate. Her newfound enthusiasm to break this pattern is because this weekend she’ll have a chance to meet one.
Privately—by necessity since we could arouse neither interest nor help from our state or country Democratic party– a few residents managed to lure one candidate to a town hall gathering. (New York is not a “swing state”. It’s expected to go wholeheartedly Democrat and as a region which the Democratic Party takes for granted, there’s no aggressive campaigning here –i.e. no significant funds are allocated by the national party.) Ours is one of four or five US House seats in NY where incumbents have resigned or otherwise will not run. These seats are open and present fair competitions whose outcomes could alter the balance of power in the House of Representatives. Don’t they count?
Urged on my some residue of hope for this country and an anthropologist’s curiosity, I’m devoting time to move through my neighborhood, risking rude rebuttals and challenging beware-of-dog warnings to urge residents to vote November 8th and to inform them of the candidate I’m supporting.
After Kathryn, I run into Lebron who’s in town for casual work as a housepainter. (He’s actually a professional cook.) Handing him a campaign flyer I ask: “You live in Middletown, so you’d be voting in this district, right?”
“Well, I’m now registered. But district 19, I don’t know.” I check my map; Middletown lies on the border of Sullivan and Orange counties. I’m uncertain too.
Steve working nearby overhears us and offers that he too isn’t sure if he votes in district 19. “My house is in Sullivan but my business is here in Delaware County; are they in the same congressional district?” (It’s a legitimate question since District 19 includes 7 whole counties and shares 5 counties with other electoral districts). This uncertainty also suggests that Steve, and maybe others too, haven’t visited their ballot station—they haven’t voted–in many years.
Sharon, down the street, steps out of her house to talk. We rarely see Sharon at our pancake breakfasts or summer Bar-B-Qs, so her eagerness to come to the coming town gathering is a good sign. “I think I have some things to ask her; I’ve seen some TV ads; there are pros and cons. What about the tax cap; what’s her position on that? I heard she wants to raise taxes.” “Come and ask her yourself”, I retort. “I will.”
(I make a note to phone Sharon on Friday to remind her of the meeting time.)
Taxes seem to be the overriding issue; no comments on foreign or energy policies, jobs, educational reform, or Citizens United (unpopular with the left because of the liberty it grants wealthy individuals and corporations to donate to candidates).
Even as Election Day nears a lot of people here haven’t yet made up their minds, certainly not about congressional candidates (they seem clearer about their presidential choices). More than once, before I have a chance to properly identify myself at their door, the householder assaults me with “Oh, no, I’m not for Hillary”, or, “I was for Sanders, but he’s out. So I’m undecided.” If, before the door closes I can explain which candidate I’m here to talk about, unfriendliness turns to curiosity. “Who?” Accepting a brochure, they ask: “What party is she? Oh, yeh, I think I saw something about her—she’s not from this area.” Or,” I saw a TV ad and have my doubts.”
“Well, do you expect to vote on Nov. 8th”? I retort, trying to end our exchange on a positive note. “Let’s see; I’m undecided. I need to know more”. Ten replies like this are erased when a door opens and a smiling citizen announces, “Oh she has my vote for sure. She’s terrific.”
Does he know more than the others? Is he a party faithful? Does he simply believe he counts?