Wednesday, December 2, 2015

#336 / What My Vote Means

The illustration above graces a web page maintained by the California State Attorney General. Click on the link if you'd like to learn about the various inititive measures that are currently being proposed for the 2016 state ballot.

Having written some initiative measures myself, and having been on the ballot as a candidate, I definitely appreciate the importance of voting. The phrasing of the above advisory, though, struck me as just a little bit "off," in the sense that the slogan might imply that "voting" is a lot less consequential than it really is.

"Voice" and "Choice" create a nice rhyme, which is always good for a bumpersticker slogan, and I am very much in favor of people both voicing their opinions and making political choices.

However, to the extent that the above slogan might lead someone to think that voting is ONLY just a way to "voice an opinion," or to "make a choice" between available political options, I think the slogan vastly understates what voting is actually all about.

Voting is about power. 

In the case of votes cast for candidates, a vote is a transfer of the political power of an individual voter to the candidate that he or she prefers. When the election is over, and all the ballots are in, the candidate who received the most votes receives ALL of the political power ultimately belonging to "the people" within the jurisdiction in which the election was held.

I like to illustrate the principle by pointing out that when I served on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, there were five Board Members, representing five different districts, and when the Board acted (not infrequently by a 3-2 vote), the local newspaper would report the Board's action by saying something like this: "Yesterday, the County took action to ...." The way the newspaper reported it, a majority of the five elected officials WERE the County. They were "the County" because the voting process had transferred the power of the people to them.

In the case of initiatives, voters are acting as legislators themselves, and they directly exercise their political power to enact (or not) the laws that come before them on the ballot.

Too often, I believe, we equate voting with "expressing or voicing an opinion." We think of voting as a way to articulate our political preference, to "voice" a "choice" about the political options that seem to be on offer.

Of course, our votes do operate as a mechanism by which we can voice our opinion, and indicate our "choice," or "preference" about the options being presented on the current political menu.

But voting is, in fact, our exercise of sovereignty. Voicing opinions and stating preferences is important, but this slogan only tells part of the tale.

We, the people, are the ultimate repository of all political power. Casting our votes is the way we use our political power to get the kind of governmental results we want. If we were thinking along those lines, we might pay more attention to voting, and we surely would take action to remove, the next time we had a chance, any official who took our power and then used it against us, by failing to do what we wanted when we voted for that official in the first place.

The distress of the American voter (and such distress is manifest, I think, in Tea Party outrage and liberal disillusion) comes from a political process that seems to offer us only a way to "voice" our "choice," as opposed to presenting us with an effective mechanism by which we can exercise our power.

The "power of the people" is at the foundation of our democracy. The whole purpose of democratic self-government is to put the people in charge, and to make them sovereign, and to let them combine their individual powers so that they, acting together, can use their combined political power effectively to govern themselves.

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