Vote with knowledge, but please vote! (Oct. 1 column)


Today our Voter's Guide is in the newspaper. It is also just before the first mail-in and early voting ballots will be available.

Our newsroom contacted every local candidate from U.S. Senate to county supervisor and asked them ten questions we thought were vital to members of this community. While we may not have covered every possible topic, we did ask them to dig deep and be accountable on the economy, agriculture, health care, mental health, education, and what each of them brings to the table. We also asked them to focus on their key issues and how they would represent all of their constituents. We asked them to give a SWOT, an analysis on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats our community faces.

On the whole, we found the candidates to be quite responsive to our questions. They made the effort and provided answers that showed they care enough at least to articulate their thoughts. Not one was what we would call dismissive. I think that demonstrates that there is a slate of good people running for office.

Iowa's U.S. Senate race is reported to be one of the most expensive in the nation, and a study showed Iowans feel fatigued in the face of the load of mailings and online and television ads Senator Ernst and Ms. Greenfield are lodging at each other. The U.S. Senate race has two additional candidates, Suzanne Herzog, an independent, and Rick Stewart, a libertarian, who responded to our questionnaire.

The guide also includes summaries of the two main presidential candidates' platforms. Their staff was not able to respond to our request for President Trump and former Vice-President Biden to answer our questions. Their summaries are taken from their direct quotes and from non-partisan sources as well as statements on the candidates' own websites.

State Senator Dennis Guth is running unopposed this year. We have no issue with Senator Guth, whose updates appear frequently on this page. However, in the interest of democracy, we find ourselves wishing he had to be elected to his seat in the Iowa Senate.

Why vote?

We like to think elections are a mechanism of accountability. A candidate seeks to be elected, or re-elected, therefore they must make the constituents happy. Constituents evaluate the performance their representatives deliver and reward those who are doing well, vote against those who are not.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, political scientists, wrote in a 2018 essay about this as the “folk theory of democracy.” We think elections provide a strong incentive to do the right thing.

Don't misunderstand: elections are a necessary system in democracy (or representative republic if you prefer), and there are good reasons to vote. But holding a representative accountable is not one of them.

Achen and Bartels say limited agency is a barrier to electoral accountability. Agency: the ability to act on our own. The concept is that we can work hard, be recognized as adding value, and earn rewards or status. Individual agency is important to a meritocracy, where the deserving are granted rewards. I have been to functions at schools in this area where after celebrating a group of students' achievements, they are told that everything that ever happens to them is based on their actions and that no outside force is affecting their situations. While I don't completely agree, I do understand. Actions have a reaction. We have to believe individual liberty comes with individual responsibility.

The researchers wondered if success is not a function of what we do individually but of the postion we hold in society's strata?

College students in the top income quartile are five times as likely to graduate compared to college students whose families are in the bottom quartile. The ones who worked the hardest to get to college are the ones least likely to stay. Graduation does come from grit and hard work, but also from status and position, and how many outside distractions like working many hours and wondering each semester how you will pay your bill are present in a student's life.

The idea that a college student's success is based solely on their individual agency is in part a myth, and the same is true for voting.

Humans are products of their social systems. We may all think our choice to vote and for whom to vote is a matter of our individual agency. No matter how large our streak of individualism and identity, we are products of our systems.

Meredith Rolfe, Betsy Sinclair and David Nickerson's research showed a decision to vote is a function of context.

Do you live with people who vote? Did your parents vote when you were young? What is the conversation around the workplace or gym? Daily exposure to politics has a great influence on our individual choices about whether and how to participate in politics.

I have experienced this. I tried to emulate a friend I admire very much and become apolitical. This is after growing up with a mother who fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and verbally sparred with Phyllis Schlafly, who created a movement against it, in the Iowa State Capitol. After our family lawn in 1984 sported both Reagan/Bush and Mondale/Ferraro signs showing my parents' egalitarian efforts. I was coasting on the idea of apolitical ambivalence when I was offered the chance to embed with a presidential campaign late last year. That was the end of the apolitical experiment. I strive here to stay as unbiased as I can, and have successfully covered events, candidates, and ideas with which I don't personally agree. I do honor each individual's choices, as long as they realize it did not come from their fierce individuality or with zero influence from the powers that seek to sway us to one side or the other.

Being influenced by those we care for is nothing to be ashamed of; it's part of what makes us human.

Elections: if they are about individuals holding elected officials accountable, we have to release the notion that as individuals we make political choices completely independent of one another.

That brings us to the notion of limited cognition. I didn't like this concept when I first read it in research for this column. Are they calling me dimwitted? At the beginning, scholars wondered if people were simply too dumb to make democracy work.

Do you have to be educated and informed to make it work? Do you have to know everything? I hope not.

We don't. For 50 years, political scientists have understood that voters have limited capacity to process information about politics.

Oh. Heck. Yes. So many ads. So many headlines. So many websites. So many mailings. So many messages. Is it nap time yet? As information surrounds us more and more, even political scientists realize it is impossible for anyone to know everything, or even most things about politics, policy and government. Our brains can't handle that kind of data storage. It is enough to know a few essentials about each candidate and issue for which you are about to vote.

It isn't nap time, but it is time for a party. Two parties, actually, or more. A candidate's party identification can provide immediate cues about what a candidate or issue is all about. In the past couple of decades, more people have tied their personal identities to which party they support, and have come up with clever names to call those from an opposing party. There is science behind this, too. Liliana Mason, another researcher, said we can make even quicker judgments about whom or what to trust. This is useful up to the point it is really not.

When we wrap ourselves in a party identification so tightly we fail to evaluate the evidence, we can make decisions in fear. We view the other side as dangerous by its very name. This leads to polarization to the extreme. Parties can become a liability for democracy instead of a feature that helps us organize. Identifying yourself as one party or another instead of a supporter of what a party or candidate represents can get in the way of us using elections to hold politicians accountable. My Granddad, F.E. Ainsworth, a capitalist who worked from his high school graduation in 1929 until his retirement in 1976 for Standard Brands and oversaw its merger with National Biscuit Company, bringing us for a time Hydrox and Oreos from the same company, is the one who told me straight-ticket voting is the purview of the unthinking. He said in an autobiography he wrote after my mom died back in 1988 that he voted Democrat and Republican, never for Nixon and always for the candidate he saw as sensible, frugal, fair and just, who would uplift the people and who seemed to have service on their mind. Just as Granddad, who was the most gracious man I have yet met, could have waistcoat-ripping shouting matches in a board room when millions of dollars was at stake then go out for a happy hour scotch and soda with the same men an hour later, we can disagree wholeheartedly on the issues, but in the end still be neighbors and not call each other names, damage each other's properties or stomp on each other's hearts.

The last point political science experts would caution us about is oversensitivity. This is our vulnerability to what is happening to us. We can understand that we are not the only ones involved in our choices, but it is people who share at least some of our ideologies who do, and that we don't have all the information, but we know where to find it, we have to deal with the fact that elections are fragile and Election Day can be fraught.

Our general mood, our physical health, or some newly released allegation about a candidate can influence us right up until we submit our ballots. With the strong influence of those around us and the diminished cognitive ability to handle an onslaught of information about the election, the chance of whimsy and impulse taking over at the polls or on the mailed ballot is real.

Luckily, our continued democracy and freedom depends not upon our ability to use elections to hold public officials accountable. Campaign finance law, the congressional calendar, and the ability of only the best-funded candidates to create enough publicity to make it onto our radar all play a part in limiting the amount of accountability a candidate has to the voters.

So what's good about elections?

They generate community. As we talk to candidates out in the field or in virtual discussions, there is that sense of, “Me, too,” when someone asks a question that has been on our mind, when we see nodding heads around the room when a candidate makes a point. Here in Iowa, already a place centered on community, the precinct caucuses give us a sense of neighborhood solidarity when we see who else is there and whom they are supporting. Elections provide a way of being part of something bigger than ourselves, an essential part of being human and something needed in this age of social separation, especially.

Elections help us participate in civic culture. It is another aspect of this powerful opportunity connect to the people around us. Elections are a way to engage with the institutions around the nation. There are over 10,000 local elections held by every community in the country during this voting period. That's powerful.

Elections are a means of individual and group expression. This is another important component of the human experience. They are a key mechanism we have to express ourselves, express our preference for how things go in our county, state and nation. It is the way our voice is counted. In accountability, voting does not guarantee legitimacy but not voting guarantees illegitimacy.

So even though voting itself doesn't make democracy work, if you don't vote, and enough people join you in silence, we may not live in a democracy anymore.


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