Orthogonal Thought | Random musings from the creator of Cooking For Engineers and Lead Architect of Fanpop





It's okay to abstain (from voting)

Posted 6 February, 2008 at 11:23pm by Michael Chu
(Filed under: Rant)

This last election in California has been quite interesting and there's been much hoopla made about the presidential race and the results in various states including California. I'm not going to talk about any of that. I want to point out a state proposition that was on the ballot and was a fairly useful indicator of, what I think is, a major problem with our voters.

While growing up in Los Angeles, I remember that my social studies, government, and history teachers always urged us to exercise the right to vote once we turned eighteen. They emphasized the importance to vote no matter what because we were lucky enough to have the right and privilege to vote, we should use it to have our voices heard. I remember at least one teacher responding to my question of, "what if I don't have a preference or an opinion, should I still vote or is it better to not vote?" The response was that with such low voter turn outs at each election, it was imperative that we vote no matter what. (I believe that this is taught in middle school and high school in the hopes that the next generation won't be apathetic and voter turn out continue to decline.) I think this type of teaching is detrimental to the democratic system in the United States.

What's wrong with low voter turn out? A small percentage of the people make the decision for the masses is usually the answer. When asked, many people respond that they vote, not because they feel strongly about a particular issue, but because they don't want other people making decisions about their city, county, or state without their input no matter how minute that input is (perhaps a 0.00002 of a percent in a state election). If a voter is doesn't have an opinion about the outcome of an election (e.g. either candidate would be fine with them) or the outcome of a proposition (e.g. if it passes or fails, they don't feel like it really affects them), then the voter should seriously consider abstaining from voting on that particular issue or set of candidates. Each vote dilutes the vote of someone who DOES care about the outcome - someone whose life may be directly and drastically affected by the change in councilman or passage of a new proposition. In addition, a voter should also seriously think about abstaining if they don't understand the proposition. I've asked people in the past whether or not they abstain on any of the items and the response is usually something along the lines of "why would I abstain on anything, shouldn't I mark something for everything?"

California Proposition 91 of the Feb. 2008 election proposed that taxes and monies collected from transportation related sources - for example, road, fuel, and vehicle taxes - can no longer be kept in the State's General Fund but must be transfered to the Transportation Investment Fund. On the whole, this sounds like a great idea if you want to keep California's state roads in good operating condition even when the state is in financial trouble. However, this proposition is on the ballot because it was qualified in 2006 (propositions take time to make it onto a ballot) and is completely pointless because in November 2006 voters voted on and overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1A which effectively does the same thing. In fact, passing Prop 91 might create confusion in the law which will need to be settled and will certainly cost more money and personnel because of the two similar but not exactly same pieces of legislature that will attempt to accomplish the same goal. There is also a chance that passing Prop 91 could interfere with the system in put into place by Prop 1A. So, the proponents of Prop 1A urge voters to vote NO on the proposition in the Voter Information Guide.

Newspapers all over California reiterate the need to vote no on Proposition 1A, talk radio, news radio, television news, voter information packets, and just about anybody providing information on the elections was reminding people to vote NO. So, how many people voted YES? Only 42% of the people who voted on this proposition or 2.75 MILLION voters. I don't really have a problem with the fact that 2.75 million Californians didn't read their voter information packets, listen to the news, or read the state or local sections of their newspapers. I do have a problem with the fact that 2.75 million people who clearly did not know anything about the proposition except what they read while in the voting booth (for if they read anything outside of the booth they would have seen the Vote NO on this Proposition part) decided that they knew enough about the proposition to actually vote on it. It failed by a decent margin of 16%, but it's still astounding that over 2/5th of the voters voted on something they knew they had no clue about.

I can't help but think that random voting (or voting based on how good the title of a proposition sounds) must skew a lot of our election results. I wish there was some way to convince the voting public that if they haven't investigated an issue enough to form a knowledge based opinion or decision on it, then abstaining allows more of those who have done the homework to have a chance for their vote to count.

4 comments to It's okay to abstain (from voting)

Bucky, February 7th, 2008 at 1:28 pm:

  • Perhaps a portion of the 42% that voted YES for Prop 91 were against Prop 1A, so they wanted Prop 91 to pass to screw Prop 1A up. =)

Michael Chu, February 7th, 2008 at 5:12 pm:

  • That is an interesting idea. I don't have the stats on how many people voted for Prop 1A, but I think it was 75% YES and 25% NO. I believe more people participated in this election than the 2006 November election, but I could be wrong.

Shirley, May 1st, 2008 at 5:16 am:

  • I know it's a little late to comment (even yesterday is old news in today's world), but I think you have an important point here. I agree….if you don't have a clue about what you are voting for, then it is better not to vote at all.

    Who has the time to fully research anything? I certainly cannot rely on the mainstream media to give me the facts. It is aggravating, to be sure.

Michael Chu, May 2nd, 2008 at 10:16 pm:

  • So, I supposed this is one of the reasons why the United States was setup as a republic utilizing representative democracy instead of a straight popular democracy. Many of my friends and colleagues seem to think it would be better if everything was completely democratic and that the founding fathers chose representation due to logistical problems with direct voting, but I think the founding fathers are smarter than most of us give them credit for. They were trying to get out of a situation of tyranny (both real and perceived) and so built in as many ways to protect both the populous and the minorities utilizing not only checks and balances but also ways to keep the majority's wishes from overrunning the minority. So far, it's more or less been working - but I think they counted on a voting population that was well versed in the democratic system and what the issues were.

    All too often we think people 200 hundred years ago must have been illiterate and uneducated and so we must be better voters than they were, but from reading papers by Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin it seems clear that they believed the citizens would have full understanding of their rights, the process, and have free access to a free press for information.