It was a proud moment in my young life… I walked into the Town Clerk’s office back in Coventry, Connecticut shortly after my 18th birthday and registered to vote for the very first time. In that place and that time, there was even a little ceremony around the event… the clerk made me raise my hand to be sworn in as a brand-new voter. And I was excited about the responsibility and the opportunity, even if the next major election was more than a year away, and the next presidential election nearly three years off. Voting meant something then.
And surprise! It still does. To be sure, the ceremony is gone… in Oregon, you now get put on the voter rolls the first time you get a driver’s license, effective with your 18th birthday. That’s the easy part. The hard part, still, is figuring out which candidates and issues are deserving of your vote. We can’t read minds or see the future, so we can still be surprised by the consequences of our votes.
Would voters in Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District have elected Wes Cooley as their representative in 1994 knowing that he had fabricated much of his resumé? Would California voters have so gleefully chosen to eject Gray Davis from the governor’s office in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 if they had known The Terminator would have just as much trouble with budgets as Davis? Would Oregon voters have elected John Kitzhaber to a fourth term as governor in 2014 if they could have foreseen that he’d resign just a month into the term? Despite our best efforts, we’re still placing a bet when we hand in a ballot.
And we’ll have many bets to place this year. Everything from President of the United States to city council seats in Drain (two plus the mayor, if you’re counting) will be on the ballot. And at this point, the November ballot could contain half-a-dozen or more propositions in California, maybe twice that number of ballot measures in Oregon.
So take a breath. Much will be asked of you this year. And the news teams at NPR and JPR will work hard to assist you. We already collaborated on a joint project to assess the mood of the electorate this year, with NPR commissioning research and reporting, and local affiliate talk shows—including The Jefferson Exchange—asking some of the same questions and providing audio back to NPR. The emphasis is on issues, particularly the issues that voters identify as important to them. If we get this right, the focus will always remain there, instead of on the “who’s up/who’s down?” dynamic so common to the presidential campaigns.
Feel free to tell us about the issues important to you, and about the races and the measure votes that most concern you. While most of the spotlights tend to focus on the big races—president and senator, and governor in Oregon this year—the stuff lower down the ballot may affect your life more than the marquee items up above. Think about it… if your neighbor breaks ground for an illegal fast-food joint, you’ll be taking it up with your city or county leaders, not the president or members of Congress. If you worry about the state of earthquake preparedness in your community, that’s an issue for state government first. National politicians are really good at portraying every election as crucial to the soul of the country, but the mundane daily business of governing--fixing streets and sewer pipes, improving neighborhoods and hiring more police--those are jobs for local government.
And you can bet that people running for office in your town or county will be delighted to hear from you. They often hold events and forums and see just handfuls of people show up. Your opportunity to get to know members of the city council before they take office is many times greater than getting more than a form letter back from a national candidate. And just think, you can influence elections and the business of governing WITHOUT having to make a pile of money in oil or real estate.
A presidential election year can be tiring, no question. We are barraged with information before the year even starts, and there’s little letup until it’s all over in November. But if we remember that we are among the lucky ones, the people who DO get to choose their leaders, we can approach our task with a measure of pride. The same kind of pride I felt when I raised my hand in the clerk’s office back in Coventry.