Steve Frantzich, Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy, answers this basic question in the selection below. It is directed to students, and teachers may want to direct their pupils to this section. Frantzich's most recent book, Citizen Democracy: Political Activists in an Cynical Age, tells the real life stories of over two dozen average citizens who used politics to affect national public policy.
Why is it important to vote?
You can't win if you don't play. Election outcomes are determined by those who participate. Elected officials make important (often life and death) decisions about how our society will expend its collective resources and the restraints it will place on individual behavior. The drinking age, the age at which you can get a driver's license, and the amount of money your teachers receive are some of the decisions made by elected officials. In making those decisions, elected officials respond to people who bother to vote more than to those who abstain. Voting does not guarantee that one's preferences will prevail, but choosing not to vote denies a person one of they key tools of having a say in a democracy.
How can a young person get involved in the voting process?
The first step is registration. All 18 year old American citizens have the right to register in the community where they live, usually by going to the city hall. Many young voters register when they get their driver's license. Some states allow mail-in registration or mobile registrars who set up tables at shopping centers or community events. The Web sites mentioned below all provide information, and in some cases direct Web links, to voter registration processes.
For those who wish to go beyond voting, most campaigns are always on the lookout for volunteers. Stopping by a candidate or party headquarters or Web site will often provide a number of volunteer opportunities.
How do you know who to vote for?
Elections seldom provide perfect choices between good and evil. The first step toward informed voting lies in determining your own personal preferences as the to public problems you are most concerned with and the solutions you prefer. What solutions to current societal problems do you prefer? Should we be spending more money on schools or for national defense? Would it be better if government limited pornography or hate speech on the Internet, or is one's right to free expression more important? Is abortion a mortal sin or a right some women might choose in desperate situations? There are not "right" answers to these questions on which everyone agrees, so the informed voter looks for candidates who share their preferences on the issues of most importance to them. Above and beyond shared preferences, informed voters look at the personal characteristics of candidates to help determine how they will perform in office. We usually prefer candidates who are hard working, honest, moral and skillful since we are entrusting them with decisions that affect our futures.
Sorting out the information about candidates from their speeches, campaign ads, media coverage and Web sites is one of the real challenges to citizens in a democracy. Many voters use short cut aids, such as relying on a candidate's political party label. Over the years, political parties have taken relatively consistent packages of policy stands (see below). Candidates for more important offices have usually served in previous positions, making it possible to assess their policy preferences and capabilities. A number of nonpartisan Web sites (see below) provide useful information for voters. Talking with friends and relatives about politics helps define one's own outlooks and understand the available options.
How do you know if you are Republican or Democrat?
Many young people feel closer to the political party chosen by their parents. This can make a lot of sense since parents and children often have similar political needs and policy preferences. A first step might be to talk to your parents and have them explain why they are Democrats or Republicans. Another approach would be to identify the two or three concerns you have about the future of your community or the nation. The political parties tend to emphasize and act on different concerns. Look at the lists below and see which party is best known for taking action on the policy areas for which you have a concern.
DEMOCRATS TEND TO EMPHASIZE:
discrimination (against minorities and women)
equality (reducing the gap between the rich and the poor)
health care (government provision)
freedom (free expression of one's views, freedom to pursue alternative life styles)
REPUBLICANS TEND TO EMPHASIZE:
crime protection and punishment of criminals
deficit reduction (not letting government go into debt for new programs)
motivation (providing opportunities for rewarding hard work and skill)
national security (protecting the nation for foreign enemies)
order and morality in society (opposing abortion, supporting prayer in schools, etc.)
The Main Political Parties
REPUBLICANS: Republicans are more conservative in the sense that they favor more limited government, more measured change in public policy and a concern for using government to guarantee national security as opposed to enlarging domestic programs designed to guarantee equality and expanding citizens' freedoms. Republicans see traditional life styles and families as a better basis for a successful society. The Republican party appeals more to middle class and non-minority voters who have reached a level of economic security.
DEMOCRATS: Democrats are more liberal, viewing government as a force to bring about change, especially to ameliorate economic, social and political inequality. They prefer domestic spending programs over expenditures on crime and national security and support the freedom of individuals to make choices on issues such as abortion and pornography. The Democratic Party draws more of its support from the less economically advantaged segments of the population and those who feel they have been discriminated against.
LIBERTARIANS: Libertarians chafe against virtually all forms of government activity. They would abolish most government programs except for a limited national defense and police force. They see most government programs as ineffective and dangerous to progress and accomplishment. They prefer a government that allows individuals to pursue their own interests with only limited government interference.
REFORM PARTY: The Reform Party is a protest against "politics as usual." Its particular policy stands tend to vary with its current nominees. Its members express frustration with the choices offered by the two major parties and seek new and creative choices. The party has typically been opposed to extensive US involvement in foreign affairs and opposed closer trading ties with other nations in order to pay more attention to US domestic problems.
Nonpartisan Web Sites
CONGRESSLINK www.congresslink.org. The home page features a Congressional Information Center with a subsection with comprehensive information about the 2000 election. It is your best bet for one-stop shopping.
PROJECT VOTE SMART www.vote-smart.org. Provides voter registration information and candidate information for state and national offices. Extensive links allow one to analyze voting records and explore current issues.
C-SPAN--CAMPAIGN 2012 http://www.c-span.org/campaign2012/. Provides extensive coverage of presidential and congressional candidates, campaign messages, candidates' use of social media, and campaign events.