One of the most startling facts about our democracy is that, in almost every election, it’s 20% of voters who decide who will win. The US has a strong two-party system, and each party can call on a large base of “tribal” voters. Around 40% of the electorate will vote Republican no matter what; another 40% are equally uncompromising Democrats. That leaves just one in five as a “swing voter” — and the way they swing usually decides who wins.
Being a tribal voter is easy, but if you want to have a real influence you need to do some homework. You’re not voting for a candidate because you’ve always voted for their party; you’re voting for the candidate who you think is going to do the best job. That means working out what issues matter most to you and then checking on each candidate’s stance on those issues.
Start by making a list of the issues that matter to you. Try to limit it to ten or fewer — enough to cover the main areas of government, but not so many that it starts to actively get in the way of making a choice. Then rank this list in order of importance. You can make a grid with a line for each issue and a column for each candidate, to give a graphical output of which one you agree with most.
Next, you need to find out how the candidates stand on the issues that matter to you. If they’ve been in office before, that task becomes quite simple — check their voting record. Congressional voting records can be checked at GovTrack, and most state legislatures will have similar tools. Pay more attention to recent votes — it’s not unknown for a politician to change their mind over time.
For candidates without a previous voting record, you’ll need to go by their campaign material, including the contents of their speeches. That will give you information about where they stand, but be aware it’s not 100% reliable. Sometimes politicians will court certain positions while stumping, yet completely abandon those positions upon election.
Digging Even Deeper
Study each candidate’s biography. Wikipedia is often a good place to start — while the encyclopedia itself can be biased, it does give you links to original sources. Look at what the candidate has done with their life. If they claim to support a cause, and in fact worked for an organization that advances that cause, they’re probably telling the truth.
Look at what they say they want to achieve and how they say they want to do it. Everyone wants to make good-quality, affordable health care available to every American, for example, but does anyone have a credible plan to make it happen?
Research into candidates will cut through the froth and soft soap of election rhetoric and help you decide who will really work to deliver the things you want. The knowledge that there are voters out there researching them can also help keep politicians honest. Finally, it means that when you cast your vote, it’s a meaningful and influential one.
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