I’ll never forget the moment when I came to immediately regret a vote I had cast because I had not taken the time to learn about the candidate. I had just moved to a new city where an election was taking place in the very near future. I learned one thing about one of the candidates and, because I was busy moving in and looking for a job, decided that was sufficient for him to earn my vote without even looking into the rest of his positions, the positions of his opponent, or either of their records. It was only weeks after the election that controversy began to emerge from his office. And he started enacting policies that I didn’t agree with — policies upon which he had based his campaign. Like I said — immediate regret.
This stands in stark contrast to my experience four years ago voting during the 2012 presidential election. First, a little background:
I don’t know how it happened, but during my time at Arizona State University as a political science undergrad I somehow managed to maintain my extremely conservative political views that had been instilled in me growing up in my Mormon home. It was only once I got to BYU for my law degree that liberal views slowly began to creep into my view of the world and politics. And yes, I also find it hilarious that the #1 party university in the country kept me conservative, but the #1 “Stone Cold Sober” university was where I found my inner progressive.
And so we come to Monday, November 5, 2012. I was in the midst of an identity crisis. Up until this point, it was almost assured I was going to vote for Mitt Romney — I was Mormon and still considered myself to be at the very least a moderate Republican. Unfortunately, this also led me to repeating the mistake of not studying the candidate I would be voting for. Why make an effort when the “R” next to his name would be the only reason I needed? But that night as I was watching V for Vendetta with my friends (“Remember, remember, the 5th of November!”) I couldn’t shake off a feeling of uneasiness about who I was going to vote for the next day.
After the movie, I was outside talking with one of my close law school friends and brought up this feeling. We ended up discussing the presidential candidates for a couple of hours in the freezing cold, a discussion which left me with only more doubts. So, I went home and I studied. I looked up the candidates’ stated positions and how others had analyzed those positions. I looked up their past records and thought about how that would translate into the future. I took all this and weighed it against my feelings and the confusing political spectrum that I currently found myself navigating. I didn’t sleep at all that night. When the polls opened up the next morning, I was the first person in line at my precinct. I do not regret one bit the decision I made that day.
These two experiences taught me a lot about the importance of being an educated voter. Too often, people go into the voting booth not knowing anything about the people they are selecting to represent them. I’ve been that person before. But it is when I have thoroughly studied the issues and the candidates that I feel like I am truly participating in our representative democracy, even if the person I voted for didn’t win.
It seems like we all know a little bit too much about the candidates running to be our nation’s president this year. I wish I could have stopped hearing about Donald Trump months ago, and the media continues to scour every minute detail of Hillary Clinton’s decades of service in the public sphere. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – it is imperative we fully vet those who seek to lead our country.
What I feel we’re missing is a properly increased focus on those elections occurring at the state and local level. Yes, presidential elections are important. The president holds immense power and, using that power, a person can implement policies that shape decades to come. However, officials at the state and local level arguably have just as much power to shape our futures. That power may come in the form of different spheres of responsibilities and policies, but it is still power nonetheless. Thus, it is also imperative that we fully vet those who seek to lead our states, counties, and cities.
Although the media doesn’t seem to think these races are as sexy as the presidential race and rarely devote any coverage to them, there are ways to learn more about them. Visit the candidates’ websites. Attend meet-and-greets. Use this voting guide put together by the State of Utah and use voting guides from advocacy groups, such as this one from Equality Utah. Read news stories about their past records and actions. And (here’s my shameless plug) if you live in one of the districts in our 2016 Debate Series, attend a debate! (But seriously, these debates should be great! And if you can’t make it to the debate, we’ll be streaming it live on Facebook!)
And remember these wise words from Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”