Steve Frantzich, Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy, answers this basic question in the selection below.
Why is it important to vote?
You can’t win if you don’t play. Election outcomes are determined by those who participate. Elected officials make important (often life and death) decisions about how our society will expend its collective resources and the restraints it will place on individual behavior. The drinking age, the age at which you can get a driver’s license, and the amount of money your teachers receive are some of the decisions made by elected officials. In making those decisions, elected officials respond to people who bother to vote more than to those who abstain. Voting does not guarantee that one’s preferences will prevail, but choosing not to vote denies a person one of they key tools of having a say in a democracy.
How do you know who to vote for?
Elections seldom provide perfect choices between good and evil. The first step toward informed voting lies in determining your own personal preferences as to the public problems you are most concerned with and the solutions you prefer. What solutions to current societal problems do you prefer?
There are not “right” answers to these questions on which everyone agrees, so the informed voter looks for candidates who share their preferences on the issues of most importance to them. Above and beyond shared preferences, informed voters look at the personal characteristics of candidates to help determine how they will perform in office. We usually prefer candidates who are hard working, honest, moral and skillful since we are entrusting them with decisions that affect our futures.
Sorting out the information about candidates from their speeches, campaign ads, media coverage and Web sites is one of the real challenges to citizens in a democracy. Many voters use short cut aids, such as relying on a candidate’s political party label. Over the years, political parties have taken relatively consistent packages of policy stands (see below). Candidates for more important offices have usually served in previous positions, making it possible to assess their policy preferences and capabilities. A number of nonpartisan Web sites (see below) provide useful information for voters. Talking with friends and relatives about politics helps define one’s own outlooks and understand the available options.
Nonpartisan Web Sites