Voters’ Pamphlet Blues

Picture of cover of Voters’ Pamphlet
Photo by John Schinnerer

Election day is nearly upon us — my ballot is already in. In the mail, that is — I live in a state with mail-in voting for all.

Before my ballot went in the mail, before it even arrived, the Voters’ Pamphlet arrived. I didn’t crack it open for at least a week. But eventually I had to, regardless of how depressing I suspected it would be.

Depressing, because voter pamphlets illustrate so bluntly what a mess we have gotten ourselves into when it comes to governance and government.

First, the candidates — who are these people, anyway? I didn’t vote for them to be on the ballot. Which is the point. As Boss Tweed said, “I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.”

Our options for who to entrust with governmental power are mostly predefined by one or more tiny groups of un-elected, largely invisible people somewhere in the relevant party’s machinery. If the candidates are outside our two dominant parties, or at very local levels, or in situations with ‘non-partisan’ offices, it may simply be whoever wants the job and announces themselves as a candidate.

The formal qualifications for most public offices involve only age, citizenship, and residency. The trope that “anyone can grow up to be President of the United States” is false in general, but true in specific and twisted ways. We have seen throughout our short national history what a disaster that can be. And it’s easy enough to extrapolate to our tens of thousands of other government offices and the ‘anyones’ who might grow up — or not — to fill them.

Legal requirements aside, the ultimate practical qualification is nothing more than the ability to get oneself elected. Which too often has nothing to do with ability to wield the power of office wisely and well. Some even posit an inverse relationship here.

And, inevitably this comes back around to the small group of un-elected, mostly invisible people who drive the nominations and the election campaigns of their chosen front persons. In any given race, those are the people who determine our alleged ‘choices’ on the ballot.

Which brings me back to my voter pamphlet blues. I flip through the pages, reading candidates’ statements, which overall consist of the same formula with different specific names and issues plugged in:

“My opponents and/or their party are one or more of corrupt, incompetent, dangerous, perverted, lazy, not good enough, or just plain losers. They are the cause of all your problems, as well as everything you have been told to think is ‘wrong’ with this (pick one) city | county | state | country. Only I, if elected, can fix all this for you.”

The ills attributed, or fixes promised, often defy all logic, reason, and common sense. For example, that the opponent is responsible for the massive wildland fires of recent years, or, that the candidate, if elected, will stop them. Substitute ‘economic problems’ or ‘crime’ or ‘racism’ or ‘covid’ or any current hot topic for ‘massive wildland fires’.

This is all absurd — these are complex systemic issues, and no individual in any one role is going to ‘fix’ them. Individuals whose mode of operation is trashing all the others involved are the least likely to ever ‘fix’ anything.

What to do, when everyone who is on the ballot is playing the blame game, speaking in absurd generalities, making un-fulfillable promises?

And then we come to the ballot measures.

My starting point is similar — who designed these, anyway? What a mess.

To cut some slack where slack is due, a few are not messes. That’s because they are so practical and tangible. There’s a County-level measure for a property tax levy to invest in parks & recreation facilities and land restoration. It’s the kind of issue that crosses many fences, regardless of whether one supports it or opposes it. Bird watchers and duck hunters alike may support funding for better ‘recreation’ access and more bird habitat — or not.

But then we have other measures. Some of which seem almost designed to fail, though whether from incompetence or intent is difficult to know without being part of whatever small, un-elected group created them.

One is a state constitution amendment that would establish a ‘requirement’ — with no specifics on how it will be fulfilled. A key phrase is “affordable healthcare access.” A likely outcome of this amendment will be a protracted period of arguing by various stakeholders over what this even means, never mind how to implement it. And thus no implementing happening for a long time.

Next we have some state legislation regarding firearms. For those of us who think ‘freedom’ does not exist without concomitant responsibility, the requirements seem reasonable, minimal even. Others vehemently disagree. But regardless, the likely crux of the measure in practice is that the burden of administration and enforcement would be placed on agencies that are allegedly already short-staffed and stretched thin.

The most explicit meta-indicator of governmental dysfunction in my voters’ pamphlet is an amendment to the state constitution that would disqualify from next term of office legislators with ten or more unexcused absences. In other words, if you blow off your job repeatedly, you don’t get to even apply for that job again next term.

That we have to amend the state constitution to induce some elected legislators to show up for their jobs is beyond ironic. It’s pathetic. And, indicative of ever-increasing adolescent behavior in too many elected officials.

This, for starters, is why I get the voters’ pamphlet blues. I don’t wallow in them for long, there’s no benefit to it. Maybe I’ll write a song someday. Meanwhile, I grumble and fume and rant a bit, and get it out of my system as quickly as I can.

After that my strategy is fairly simple. Figure out as best I can the lesser of evils, for each ‘choice’ in a broken system, and fill in that oval.

That’s the least, the very least, of my responsibilities as a citizen. Voting is not the end of civic responsibility; it’s not even a beginning, in too many cases.

Far more important and crucial is whatever can be done, anywhere, by any or better yet all of us, to build a more transparent, responsive, effective, and inclusive system of civil governance.



A generalist in a hyper-specialized society. "How we do what we do is who we are becoming." - Humberto Maturana

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John Schinnerer

A generalist in a hyper-specialized society. "How we do what we do is who we are becoming." - Humberto Maturana