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What Floats Your Vote Boat?

By the time you are reading this, America has held its 2020 general election in which the presidency was up for grabs. In fact, as I write this in the aftermath of election day, there is not a confirmed winner. This post is going to be about the ethics and decision-making of voting, and you might wonder why I would post something like this after an election - isn’t it a bit late for this discussion?


I don’t think so for two reasons. First, there will be opportunities to vote again in the future and the content here would apply to those later occasions. Second, I would guess that myself, and you the reader, can now approach this issue with more dispassionately. In the midst of voting season, particularly if we have already made up our minds about who we will vote for, it can be difficult to change one’s ethic in the midst of decision-making. But now that there is no longer an opportunity to vote for this past 2020 election, we can approach the topics with clearer minds, wouldn’t you say? No need to rush to the defense for what you did; you can’t change that now. What you can do is reflect on your experience, your thought process for voting, and perhaps your findings may influence future opportunities.


Consider this thought-experiment. Can you picture those big poster-board thermometers at fund-raisers? It would be filled in with red marker as donations were received in order to get to some financial goal. Now, suppose you have one of those in your living room for each main candidate for a presidential election, and instead of filling up the thermometer when funds come in, imagine you fill it as you learn something good about the candidate. Suppose also that your marker can erase what you’ve already markered if you discern something bad about a candidate. The “goal” you are trying to reach is “I will now vote for this person”; if you reach that line on the thermometer, then that candidate has earned your vote!


I like this thought-experiment, because it gets us on the same page for what language to use when discussing the issues. Here’s the 2 huge problems facing you the voter - first, when do I fill in (or erase from) a thermometer; and second, how much do I fill in?


Let me explain. I know for a fact that some people would fill in the entire thermometer because of one issue - sometimes we call this the “single-issue voter”. For example, many folks have cast their vote solely because one candidate supports a view of abortion that aligns with their own view. That issue alone was enough to fill up their thermometer completely. I would also say that this is not uncommon. There are a number of other contenders for issues that would entirely fill-up or largely fill a thermometer: climate change, nuclear weapon policy, race relations, and border security to name a few. You could probably find at least one person for every issue where they made that issue the end-all-be-all for their vote.


Is it irrational or unethical to vote in such a way - to fill up the thermometer from a single issue? Is it more nuanced and morally respectable to consider more than one issue? If you are tempted to say yes, well, then finding a cut-off point as to what issues count and for how much becomes extremely difficult. Should I consider only 5-6 issues? Why not 12 issues? What about issues that I know nothing about and don’t directly affect me at all, such as how a candidate will impact the yarn industry (sorry if you are super involved with the yarn industry). Should I really become competent and informed about the yarn industry and how a given candidate will affect it in order to appropriately fill-in or erase portions of my mental thermometers? Or am I allowed to curate my own personal list of issues that I discern matter most?


What makes being a “multi-issue voter” so challenging is that there is not a political currency with which to compare and contrast the relative help and harm of policies. Think of it this way: without a monetary currency it would be tough to figure out how many nails a car is worth. But once currency and market values give a sense of how much each one is worth, I could then figure out how many nails is equal in value to my car (turns out my cars is worth about 35,000 nails...it’s not an amazing car).


But there isn’t really something like that for politics and voting issues. How do I compare the benefits or deficits of minimum wage increases to whether or not we should be isolationist in foreign policy? Or comparing the value of certain liberties when it comes to owning firearms to corporate tax rates. All of these are covered in some way by a candidate or party platform but they border on being incommensurate, or unable to be compared by a standard measurement. It seems that the aspiring nuanced, well-considered voter runs up against the brick wall of either an astounding amount of knowledge to become informed or the near impossible value judgments required to know how much of their thermometer to fill-in from the wide array of topics.


So, what do we do? Using the thermometer thought-experiment, how should we be filling in our thermometer? One intriguing answer to some of this is the idea of political parties. America’s two-party system catches quite a bit of flak, but there is a compelling idea behind it from the perspective of the voter. A party, ideally, has a clear platform, and they have gobs of people in the party that vet candidates, consider who to endorse and put resources behind, and then ask you, the voter, to cast your vote for this party’s candidate for a given position. You might think as the voter, well, if I find myself agreeing with a particular party on matters of policy, then I will trust them to filter out the poor candidates and put up good ones who will be a representative and champion of the values/principles that led me to support the party.


I think a ton of people vote this way, and it is not a horrible response to the “thermometer problem.” The issue here is that it is unlikely a political party will actually align with all of your values and principles. In which case, you are stuck in the thermometer experiment again, but with parties instead of candidates.


There is so much more to say about this, so check out our discussion of this topic in more depth on Youtube or on your favorite podcatcher.


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