These are trying times for voters, let alone first time voters, struggling to disentangle American politics before Election Day on Nov. 3. In any year, first time voters can feel intimidated by the sheer volume of information available about candidates and political issues. Throw a global health crisis into the middle of it and the surmounting stress of it all makes our political engagement seem nearly improbable.
If you are a habitual voter or a first time voter, these uncertain times can also be viewed as an opportunity to influence the history of events. Together, we are bearing witness to an era that will be studied and scrutinized with great interest. Even as each of us endure our share of personal troubles, we share this moment in time and have an opportunity to influence it, together.
The practice of democracy rests on its citizens being informed, thoughtful, and deliberative. That can feel like a heavy burden. Being an informed citizen involves of lot of personal investment that incurs a great deal of time and effort. There are many things competing for our time and attention these days. Having unstructured time to purse the higher ideals of civic participation feels like a fleeting luxury.
Added to the time crunch, are other features of our society that complicate the pursuit of reliable information. Hyper-partisanship and the negative political tone of the past several years has put a damper on political discourse. A Pew Research Center study found that 45% of U.S. adults have stopped talking with someone about politics altogether. Another Pew Research study found that 48% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 commonly get their political and election news from social media. The same study concluded that Americans who get their news from social media are less civically engaged, and less politically knowledgeable.
All this may sound dire, but there are various ways you can get informed ahead of the November election. The first piece of advice is to do a quick personal inventory. First, figure out whether you are registered to vote. Visit the Arkansas Secretary of State’s website (www.sos.arkansas.gov/elections) to check your voter registration status. If you are not registered to vote, get registered (you have until Oct. 5). You can register at the website, or do it on campus at one of the UCA voter registration drives. Second, if you are wondering where you fit into the political landscape, take some political quizzes like www.isidewith.com or www.politicalcompass.org to learn more about where your personal politics situates you.
The next piece of advice is to look for reliable online sources of political information. Non-profit organizations such as VoteSmart (www.votesmart.org) provide free, factual, and unbiased information on candidates and political issues. Other online sources such as www.realclearpolitics.com provide readers with compiled news media stories from around the country and a running tally of national and local opinion polls. They are quick and effective ways to check in on daily politics.
Lastly, look no further than the UCA community. The UCA Honors College 2020 Challenge Week is September 25 through October 2. Its theme is citizenship, democracy, and governance and dedicated to helping students get informed and engaged. A schedule of its programs is found at www.uca.edu/honors/cw. The UCA Suffrage Centennial Project, in October, is dedicating space to express the triumphs and limitations of the 19th amendment through various modes of public art and dialogue. The project is aimed at raising civic awareness and more information about these events, and the project, is found at www.uca.edu/cahss/suffrage-centennial/.
Voter registration deadlines are fast approaching and soon early voting will start. It is a good time to revisit the meaning of voting. A common public narrative that frames voting encourages citizens to “make their voices heard.” This political science believes framing voting as an exercise of expression is incomplete. Voting is simply not about expressing one’s self. The act of casting a ballot is about rendering your consent to be governed.
There is no doubt that voting has expressive benefits, I will never diminish the sense of pride someone (I hope) feels when casting a vote. However, the mainstreamed narratives and get-out- the-vote tag lines simply frame voting as something expressive.
Voting is something much weightier. It is the act of giving your legal consent to be governed. Another way to consider this, by voting, you are entering into a contract. When we vote, we are rending our consent to a candidate to work on our behalf. This is the basic tenet of the Social Contract. Think about what citizens are giving consent to when voting (all the policies, all the demands, the expectations of our representative to act good faith, the expectation of protection, and safety, the public good, etc.).
By voting, citizens have 1) expressed policy preferences and 2) these preferences are the terms of the contract. If an elected public official violates that contract, we the citizenry, hold the legal authority to revoke our consent either by means of voting them out, or in some states, a recall election. See, when we vote and render our consent to someone to govern on our behalf, we also have conferred our public trust upon that representative. A violation of that trust is a violation of the contract.
When framed this way, the power dynamic shifts and inverts the political hierarchy. Democracy as the experiment of self-governance is truly a bottom-up organization. However, contemporary discourse and rhetoric frames voting as being simply “expressive” and not an action of giving consent. It is framed as a civic action of citizens volunteering in the interest of political matters. Additionally, the voting-as-expression framework privileges the power brokers (those who are single minded seekers of re-election). By reducing the act of voting to something as contrived and simple as expression, the way we express our preferences for dinner, ice cream, or our favorite TV show, its power is diminished. The power of the collective citizenry is devalued. This depreciation of voting makes it something merely performative. In the minds of voters, non-participation then holds little consequence. Voting then is revered as nothing more than a high burden, high cost performative action. So who benefits from the voting-as-expression narrative and the resulting low voter turnout? The power brokers of the status quo.
If the citizenry thought of voting more as the legal action of conveying consent, the balance of power shifts. All our founding philosophies emphasize the importance of self-governance, but it is seldom fully realized in practice because of all the efforts to disenfranchise the American electorate. If voting were truly just expressive, the political institutions would not work so hard to make sure so many of our citizens could not exercise it.
Voting is not zero-sum arrangement. Voting is not either consent or expression, its both. However, like too many things in our political discourse, it gets reduced to zero-sum scenario. The voting-as-expression rhetoric sounds inert, it does not really drive the importance of what we are collectively doing when we vote. We are conferring our consent to be governed; we are investing someone with the authority to act on our behalf. The power of the vote is the single most important power we have as a collective citizenry. Vote!