Only 62% of the eligible voting public voted in the 2008 United States Presidential Election. And 2008 wasn’t even one of those more local-centric elections where voters are less likely to turn out. Nope, 2008 was a big one. And four out of ten Americans couldn’t be bothered with it.
The U.S. is dead last among major world democracies when it comes to voter turnout. That’s a shame. When people don’t vote, they are more likely to be disconnected from the civil goings on around them. Laws, services, community. You name it, all of that is under their radar. Admittedly, intelligent voting does require some work in that you have to pay at attention and that means more than flipping on your favorite cable news channel.
November 6th is less than a month away now, which gives us plenty of time to get up to speed.
Are you with me?! C’mon! Let’s get started!
1) Are you registered to vote?
2) Do you know about early voting and how that very nearly allows you to vote at your leisure?
3) Do you know who is on your ballot? Who you can vote for?
4) Do you know how to find information on the various candidates, judges and issues?
Seems like a daunting list, but remember, we have a month. I’m going to be listing my local links for the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois in this blog, but if you’re reading this, I know you have access to the internet. Answers specific to your location are just a Google search away. That’s exactly how I’m finding the links I’m listing here.
1) How to register or find out if you’re registered to vote?
It’s very possible that if you’ve put it off this long, you’ve missed your chance to register already. In Chicago, voter or change of address registration ends, Tuesday October 9th. Very soon. Google search for “2012 election voter registration (the name of your city and/or state)” to find out if you still can. You usually need two forms of ID to register. One has to have your current address. It could be a driver’s license and a recent Com-Ed bill for instance, if you’ve recently moved within Chicago, but your Illinois drivers license still has your previous address on it.
ID requirements for voter registration are different and more stringent than what you need to actually vote in most places, despite the sketchy attempts by some groups to increase the number of hoops you have to jump through at the polling place. Most of those have been overturned by the courts in recent weeks as putting unfair hardships on specific groups of voters such as the young, the elderly and the poor. Sarah Silverman describes that better than I can here in her usual brilliant NSFW style.
The excellent news is that sometimes you can vote even if you’ve missed the official registration deadline. Some communities will allow a grace period or safety net, but you will have to vote at the same time that you register. Chicago does just that and here’s a link with more information.
To confirm that you’re registered and in good standing, you can usually check online. In Chicago, you can check here. For the rest of the State of Illinois, check here. For you Googlers, try searching for something like, “2012 voter registration status in [your city and/or state]” to find a similar way to check.
So you’ve confirmed your registration is current or at least you now know how to register. Good.
2) Early voting.
Early voting is great. It really takes the pressure off of you having to wait in long lines or trying to squeeze it in before or after work on the actual election day. It’s too easy to find excuses to blow off voting on election day. You’re tired. A meeting went long. You get to your polling place and the lines are out the door. Early voting eliminates most of those excuses. You may always be tired. But you can suck it up and vote anyway.
For those of you voters living near me, here are the specific links for early voting in Chicago and the State of Illinois. We can begin early voting October 22nd. In Chicago, hours are Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm and in a few locations including downtown Chicago at The Chicago Board of Elections, 65 W. Washington, on Sunday October 28th, from 9am to 3pm. No more excuses for not having time.
3) The election ballot and candidate races.
Most communities have sample ballots that you can download in advance to see the candidates, judges and another issues or referendums that you’ll be voting on. Nothing worse than getting into the voting booth and being presented with names and options that you’re unfamiliar with. But it’s easy to get the test in advance, so to speak.
In Chicago, here’s a link to the sample ballot (same as checking your registration but you can download a PDF once you enter your address and last name.) And here is how you can find a sample ballot for the rest of the State of Illinois… right…. um… right…. Okay, it looks like the State of Illinois Sample Ballot isn’t up yet. But you get the idea.
For you readers in other part of the United States, the usual Google search for “[your city and/or county and/or state] November 6th 2012 sample election ballot” should get you what you’re after, or you can try ballotpedia.org, which has a list of states and links to get you at least a list of candidates if not even more specific information. It may take a little hunting, but being a responsible voter means doing a bit of homework. It’s important. Local newspapers usually have an online presence that may have specific information on registration, polling places, races and other useful information. Here is an example at The Chicago Tribune. And the Chicago Sun-Times.
4) How do I figure out who to vote for?
Okay. The three questions above are important, but this one is perhaps the most critical. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. I wouldn’t presume to do that. But I do want you to be an intelligent voter. I want you to really know what you’re talking about and why you’ve made the choices you have when you cast your ballot.
First. Pay attention a little more than usual. Be aware of where the information is coming from that you’ve been inundated with or soon will be if you’re not already. Most television, specifically TV commercials, is not where you should be forming your opinions. A lot of groups and candidates are paying millions of dollars to present their case with commercials that are only half-true, if that. That goes for both major political parties. Ignore the TV ads. Really. It’s a lazy way to get informed and political parties are counting on voters not putting in a bit more effort.
Becoming an intelligent voter requires getting your information from multiple sources. Even the ones you may not agree with. The more different sources of information you have, the less likely you’re going to be swayed by one organization with a political agenda that may not be in your best interests or the Country’s best interests.
Start with actual news organizations. Actual newspapers or their respective websites. Actual reporters not political pundits or bloggers. Cable news networks rarely count as being a member of actual unbiased news organizations. They have agendas and while some play more loose with the facts more than others, consider them an appetizer or desert if you must watch. Overall, they are not nutritious in your daily information diet.
Chose a couple of newspapers to read or skim on a daily basis. Physical paper or online. It doesn’t matter. Try to choose them with an eye on differing points of view. For a national newspaper, if you feel The New York Times is too liberal for you, read it anyway, but read The Wall Street Journal along with it for a more conservative point of view. And then make up your own mind. But at least you’ll have heard several viewpoints. Voting intelligence requires hearing multiple points of view before making up your own mind.
Here in Chicago, The Chicago Tribune is considered a conservative newspaper and the Chicago Sun-Times maybe a little less so. Pairing one or both of those with The Windy City Times, The Chicago Reader or The Chicago Defender would be enlightening for most voters. They key is no matter where you live, diversify your newspaper information. Step outside your comfort zone for a month. It will be worth it.
If reading isn’t your thing, there’s always radio. And I don’t mean politically based talk radio from either the right or left. That’s just the cable news agenda without the colorful moving pictures. Look for the middle. Local is good. For national, whether you buy into it or not, NPR (WBEZ here in Chicago) is as close to the middle as you can get in national radio. I mean it. I don’t always agree with their coverage, which means they’re not automatically feeding me what I think I believe. They really make an effort to present as many points of view as possible. I have suffered through interviews with people that I don’t believe should have gotten the publicity that NPR gave them in an effort to present “both sides of the story.” They really try and no one is getting rich working there.
Sometimes it’s good to look at America from outside America. Your partner may kindly lie to you when presented with the “does this make my ass look fat?” question. An acquaintance or stranger may not be so kind. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and their World Service Radio Broadcasts are a great way to see our politics from outside the bubble. Same with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). What happens here, really affects Canada, so they do talk about it quite a bit. France-24 (available in French, English and Arabic) is another good source of world information from outside the US. Believe it or not, I read, watch or listen to all of these at least once a day.
And if you really want to go through the looking-glass, try Al Jazeera (which literally translates to “The Island”). One of my colleagues down the hall, watches it online and turned me onto it last year. He’s Irish-Mexican-American, by the way, in case you were thinking something else.
But Billy, why should I care about what other countries think of America? Well it’s not exactly that you should care, per se, although it’s nice to try to be a good knowledgeable world citizen, but sometimes it’s important to include information from places not so close to home when you’re forming opinions about who you want to represent you in America. As evidenced by the effect the Euro Crisis is having on our own economic recovery, the world effects you more than what you can see in the view to the end of your driveway. We’re all connected, whether we like it or not.
Ever spot your reflection in a window and recoil in horror that you can’t believe you walked outside dressed like that? Well, think of U.S. news from other counties as that big window reflection where you can actually see what you look like walking around out there. Sometimes you actually look ridiculous. Exact same thing.
And I’ll give you a gold star if you were aware that Venezuela held their own Presidential election this past weekend. Anyone? The outcome of that election will probably affect you in some way in the near future as well when you fill up your car with gas. Good to be aware of those things, even when they seem far away.
In the coming weeks, I’ll add another entry about using local voter guides from various organizations to help you narrow down your choices before you enter the voting both. Voter guides and recommendations are a nice way to save time but still be informed. It’s a bit early for those to be available just yet. For now let’s just make sure your head is in the voting game.
Thank you for reading and the kind support I’ve received for my past voting guides.