Voting: Your Least Powerful Way To Make Change

Please vote. In a rare instance, your vote might determine who gets elected. But in the case of most issues that touch you, you have little or no power to make change through elections and it doesn’t matter who is elected. Here’s why:
1. In California general elections, the candidate must receive 50 percent plus one and the winner takes all. Therefore, only candidates who run as “plain vanilla” can win. A smart candidate sits squarely in the middle of the road-as “middle” is defined in the election district-and takes as few stands as possible on as few issues as possible. They have to. Every time a candidate takes a stand, they are more likely to arouse opposition than supporters. So most issues never come up in an election in any meaningful way.
2. Issues raised in elections tend to be the popular, lightning rod issues, often social issues. Crime, abortion, welfare, education, the economy, the death penalty, immigration, social security, health care, gas prices. Most of these issues are so intractable that nobody can do much more than make a marginal change, no matter what. However, they are all great campaign issues. They arouse passion in the electorate and generate votes. They are important. But what, realistically, can anyone do about them? The issues discussed in most campaigns, and the issues candidates tend to promote, have little or nothing to do with you anyway. Your issue probably won’t come up in a campaign and the candidates probably will not be aware of it.
Of the issues that members of Congress and state legislatures work on, 99.44 percent are never discussed in campaigns. These are the nitty-gritty regulatory issues that determine how state money is spent on parks, highways, people, water and the environment and so on. The California Assembly might consider 2,000 to 4,000 bills in a session. Most touch only a few people, although for them, the impact can be huge.
Politicians know that most voters aren’t focused on issues. I read in the Washington Post about two voters who had made up their minds. One told a candidate, “I knew I was going to vote for you because of the handshake.”
He couldn’t name a single issue she favored, but he admired her confidence. “You can tell something about a person from a handshake.”
Another voter said, “I was impressed that she thinks she can make a difference in education. I haven’t voted in a while. But I haven’t had anyone knock on my door.” This voter did not ask what kind of difference the candidate would make on any issues.
3. In fact, issues very seldom determine elections. Most people who get elected win because of name recognition and personality. They are well known and liked. Remember Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger? The fact he wasn’t such a bad governor was a fortuitous accident. Voters often project their feelings and values onto candidates they like without knowing what the candidate believes, just as they think they know movie stars from the characters they play.
4. We don’t always get the best and brightest people to run for office. For one thing, you’d have to be nuts to want to subject yourself to the abuse you will receive. For another the pay doesn’t look like much to talented people. California beats out the other 49 states on that score with the highest pay and benefits of any. As of 2013, members of the California legislature are paid $95,291 per year and $141.86 per day in session. California does not provide pensions for legislators who took office after 1990.
Understanding and accepting the above explains why you need to keep on voting after the election. This understanding is key to the power exercised by professional lobbyists and special interest groups. They know that it is not who gets elected that decides most issues. They know that most elections are decided on personalities, name recognition and gerrymandered districts, not issues. Professional lobbyists know that most elected officials come into office, and many remain in office, ignorant of most issues. This is not to criticize them but to recognize reality. They cannot know much about issues because there are too many.
Smart lobbyists and special interest groups also know, therefore, that it is what they do before, after and apart from the election that will determine their success at getting what they want from the political system. Political professionals and smart organizations frequently support both sides in an election to build a relationship with whoever wins. They understand that the point of supporting candidates is less to get someone to win, though that’s great when it happens, and more to have a relationship with whoever wins.

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