In case you missed it, today is election day for the city of Durham. After months of knocking on doors, handing out flyers and meeting with their potential constituents, the six candidates for City Council and two for mayor have finally earned a well-deserved break from campaigning. All they need is for a few of us, Durham’s citizens, to trudge to the polls and pull the lever, fill in the circle or punch the button next to their name. In doing so, we’ll enable some of those lucky candidates a place at the table in determining our own future and the futures of some 262,000 county residents. In a way, our local government depends on us. But I would like to offer a piece of advice to you as you enter the polls: Please vote responsibly.
Like every good citizen, we’ve been encouraged to go out and perform our civic duty in the name of patriotism since grade school. Our teachers have joined a chorus of parents, scoutmasters and similarly civic-minded individuals who have sung praise for a practice as essential to the U.S. as Thanksgiving dinner. If we’re lucky we’ll walk out of the polls sporting a little red, white and blue “I voted” sticker so we can show off our civic involvement to our friends. And if we’re very lucky an email from the administration may even be in order, reminding us of the day‘s significance. All in all, voting can be a generally gratifying experience. But it is a task that ought to be conducted with care.
Let me explain myself: A vote can be very powerful. A 2002 election for county commissioner had to be settled over a playing card draw (true story!) because each candidate tied at the ballot box. In 1962, the governors of three different states (Maine, Rhode Island and North Dakota) won by a margin of one vote per precinct. And during the 2000 election, George W. Bush won Florida by a paper-thin margin of 537 votes. While these stories are unrepresentative of most voting circumstances, my point is that those participating in these elections were generally unaware of how important their votes would be. Who knew in 2000 that the presidential election could ultimately be decided by such a small handful of people?
Voting is a two way street—it can usher in candidates and leaders who’ll change our nation for the better, or it can accomplish the reverse. Take the 2008 senatorial election, where incumbent Jim DeMint trounced Democratic nominee Alvin Greene in South Carolina. Greene, a man without conventional political experience, surprisingly won his party’s nomination after mounting a virtually non-existent campaign. Some political theorists believe Greene won because his name was listed first on the ballot. Had voters been more informed, they might have chosen a candidate more worthy to bear the party standard. Instead, the Democratic electorate sold itself short by choosing a poorly-equipped leader.
Straight-ticket voting, a traditional shortcut to a quick and thought-free trip to the polls, is also a no-go in general elections. Doing so reduces a voter’s ability to make an accurate and informed decision about questionable candidates and changes the dynamics of party leadership in an unhealthy manner. Party nominations are generally decided more by party activists, leading to the increased polarization of political parties. If an individual has researched every candidate on the ticket and likes only those candidates with an “R” next to their name, by all means the voter should go for it. But only after due deliberation.
So before you head to the polls, take a minute to go online and read up on the candidates. Learn about their positions and where they stand on important issues to Durham County. Do they support the infamous sales tax increase, or will they oppose it? What are their stances on voter ID cards? Will they lead Durham to fiscal solid ground, or plunge it further into the morass of overspending and inefficiency? These are questions which we all need to find the answers to. And when we do, we’ll all be a little bit better for it. So please vote responsibly.
William Reach is a Trinity junior and a member of Duke College Republicans. His column runs every other Tuesday.