It’s early November which means that it’s time for another election. Your first opportunity to vote comes after you’re done with high school, however, so there’s no universal way to learn how to vote or even how to understand what you’re voting for. People who seek positions are obviously important, but often the greater impact is on measures, propositions, amendments, ballot initiatives, and tax levies. We’re supposed to be educating citizens so we can cast thoughtful ballots, but how do you learn how to do that?
Thomas Jefferson said it well: “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate”. I’ve certainly spent many elections trying to figure everything out, and with ballot text that is typically written by lawyers, it’s no surprise that it’s confusing. I have learned to rely on doing my own research and leaning into voting guides from news sources I find trustworthy, including the Denver Post, League of Women Voters, and, locally, Boulder Daily Camera.
Here in Colorado, we have ballots mailed to us that we can fill out at our leisure and either drop off at a secure ballot box or mail through the Postal Service. It’s very convenient, but even without a formal ballot, you can bring notes into your local polling station if you prefer to vote in person. Different implementation, same concept, for sure.
But how to teach this approach to my children?
OUR FAMILY VOTING ROUNDTABLES
Starting with my oldest – for obvious reasons – I have hosted voting roundtables in my family for almost a decade now; everyone with a ballot sits around the table with their computers and we all go item by item, voting on our individual ballots as we proceed. I don’t care how they vote – we’ve certainly disagreed on some things! – but that they learn to appreciate the privilege of being able to vote and that they do vote in every election. I also remind them that it’s entirely acceptable to skip one, two, even the majority of what’s on the ballot because you only care about one or two specific issues.
Everyone gets their say, we each read what we’ve found through research or election guides, then we talk about how we each see the issue and what perspective we each have. None of my kids seem to be one-issue voters (and by that I mean the kind of voter who chooses candidates based purely on their stance on climate change, abortion, affordable housing, etc.)
Since we’re mostly aligned on our values, it’s no surprise that we typically agree on issues, but we had quite a healthy debate on whether psychedelic mushrooms should be legal in Colorado or not, with me going into the discussion as a weak no, and them convincing me to vote yes on Proposition 122. Conversely, I was sufficiently enthusiastic about Proposition FF aiming to tax people earning over $300,000/yr to fund all school meals to ensure no impoverished children go hungry while at school. Give and take, and there were some other issues that we never did reach a consensus, but we still each voted. Did our votes cancel each other out? Yes, but it’s still important.
A groundrule that I’ve set but not ever stated is that we aren’t judging each other for our choices or pressuring anyone into voting for or against any candidate or proposition. Freedom to vote your values, your heart, your moral compass, that’s another foundational value for American Democracy (yes, with capitalization).
SOMETIMES, IT’S VIA ZOOM
While both of my girls were in the room with me this time, my son was unable to join us in person so we hooked him up via Zoom, a laptop sitting on the kitchen counter so he could see and hear all three of us. It was the first time he’d joined our voting roundtable and this year was also the very first time my youngest could vote, so that was really cool.
Still, it does bring us back to the question of how us citizens are supposed to learn how to vote? Certainly it is demonstrably poor judgment to rely entirely on placards and soundbites to decide potentially quite important issues, but if you’re new to voting, how do you otherwise figure things out and know what to vote on an issue that might not otherwise directly affect you?
One thing I would like to see is a more explicit reminder to voters that you don’t have to vote on everything, because I surmise that Democrats and Republicans often vote straight party ticket without every researching the candidates. Needless to say, there are corrupt and immoral candidates for office from both parties and do you want to be one of the deciding votes for them gaining office?
In terms of the advertising, lawn signs, and TV spots, how do you teach young voters to spend a few minutes investigating the funding sources of the pro and con action committees before deciding which has more veracity and is more trustworthy? Your neighbor might be a lovely person, but that doesn’t mean they have any particular insight into the current amendments and propositions.
Still, compared to not having a voice or just trusting that someone who happens to have a peerage has sufficient insight into my own beliefs, values, and dreams for our nation, this voting system is pretty dang good. Is it flawless? No. Is there any proof that it’s corrupt and has widespread fraud? Again, no. Like Democracy in the era of social media and the Internet, it doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s surprisingly good.
When my youngest dropped off her ballot at the polling station on campus at Colorado State University, here’s the text I sent her:
That sums up my feelings about the whole process. Now, how are you teaching your young adult children how to navigate the political world and cast their own ballots so they too have a voice in the future of our nation?