Voting early…and somewhat less than enthusiastically

WILMINGTON, NC  - MAY 6:  Voters cast their ballots at Bradley Creek Elementary School the morning of May 6, 2008 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Voters in Indiana and North Carolina have their primary polls May 6. (Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images)

By the time you read this, I’ll have already voted.

The legendary Chicago maxim – “vote early and often” – aside, you can only vote as often as elections are held, and when they are held, you only get to vote once. But in many places, you don’t have to wait for Election Day any more, and you can easily comply with the “early” part. More and more districts are implementing in-person “early voting” at selected locations as much as a month in advance of Election Day, and if that’s not available to you, voting by mail probably is. (Voting online is still years off, I suspect, with a lot of security concerns to be addressed first.)

I used to think “absentee ballots” were only issued in special circumstances and you’d have to explain why you couldn’t get to the polls on Election Day, but I know differently now. At least in California, anyone can request a Vote by Mail ballot, either for specific elections or for the rest of their voting life. I’ve done the latter; I’ve voted “permanent absentee” for seven years, and as long as they keep mailing me the ballots, I’ll keep doing it. My husband just got his first mail-in ballot, and I have a feeling he’ll be a convert.

California usually has an insanely long ballot for its general elections. It’s not just the number of candidates and offices; it’s also the volume of referendums and propositions submitted for voters to decide. Home is the ideal place to attack this project. I can treat the ballot like an open-book test and look up information on the spot as I’m making my decisions, and I can take as much time as I need. The only real drawback is that I don’t get a little “I Voted” sticker.

But no matter how much time I take with this year’s ballot, it’s not going to look any better. My level of enthusiasm for the 2010 election is very low, and it’s tempting to skip the whole thing. But I see voting as both a privilege and a civic duty, and I’m going to carry out that duty, unappealing as it may be. The potential consequences of not voting are even less appealing.

If it’s true that one definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result,” then there’s a pretty good argument for not re-electing any incumbents. From where I sit, the people in those jobs aren’t getting the job done; between partisan disputes and platitudes about what “the American people want” – who are NOT a monolith, by the way and whose “wants” seem contradictory depending on the speaker and the poll they’re citing – not much governing seems to be going on. I’m seriously tempted to cast a reflex vote for the challenger in every single race that includes an incumbent. However, when I sit down with the ballot, I probably won’t carry that out; I will take each race on a case-by-case basis, and vote for the challenger if he or she actually seems like the better candidate. Granted, sometimes it’s hard to tell, and I am not thrilled with my options.

I’m not thrilled with my choices in some of the open races, either. The biggest of those in California is for governor, and our major-party candidates are a wealthy businesswoman with no political experience (and who didn’t even bother to vote for much of her adult life) and a career politician and former governor who last held that office 30 years ago…and it shows. This is no longer the state Jerry Brown governed the first time around, and I’m not sure he should be running on that experience. And it’s not a business either; Meg Whitman brings that orientation to the table, and while I think that may be a useful mindset, I’m not convinced it’ll help in getting anything done. Government has separation of powers as decreed by our founders and the Constitution, and the state legislature doesn’t work for the governor.

I’m not sure exactly who the legislature works for, really, or how much work they do at all. In representative government, elected officials are delegated to make policy in the interests of the people they represent, but considering how many policy matters get opened up to popular vote here, I think they’re dropping the ball. There are nine propositions on the November ballot, including two contradictory measures concerning redistricting. Another two proposals concerning the state budget also have contradictory elements, but the clause in Prop 25 that would cause lawmakers to forfeit their pay for every day they’re late in passing a budget actually sounds pretty good to me, considering that California’s budget for fiscal 2011 was 100 days late (the fiscal year began on July 1). However, I think I’d need  additional assurance that they don’t ever get that money back once they do enact a budget. And I’d rather have lawmakers take positions on these issues in the first place instead of dumping them back on the voters. But because that’s what’s done around here, we do get to vote on legalizing pot this year! (However, even if it passes, it’ll still be illegal – and enforced – at the federal level, so I’m not sure what the point is.)

My state’s got a lot of issues to deal with – taxes and a difficult business climate, a sharp drop in educational achievement, illegal immigration, unemployment and housing, infrastructure and the high cost of living – lots of demand for services and improvements, and lots of questions about how to pay for any of it. And just when you think it can’t get much worse…somehow, it does. Education can’t improve when budgets and instruction days keep being reduced. Higher taxes drive businesses away and reduce the tax base, and  the inability to buy and keep a home sends individuals and families following in the wake of those businesses. It all feels like it’s just spiraling in on itself sometimes, and I’m not sure anyone’s up to the challenges of dealing with it all, let alone the ones who think they actually want the job.

And I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge of choosing among them this year, but that’s my job. I wish I were more excited about it, but I’m getting it done early just to get it over with. Still, sometimes that new planet sounds awfully attractive…

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