How can you prepare for Election Day? Before choosing between candidates, first decide which political issues matter the most to you and learn more about the different positions on the ballot. Research the candidates, and then make your choices.
Given the diversity of issues raised in a political campaign and the even wider range of topics elected officials are likely to consider over the course of a term in office, it may be impossible to find any candidate with whom you will agree completely. With this in mind, which issues should be most important when choosing which person to support?
Some voters answer this question by selecting one issue they believe is most important and evaluating candidates based on it. We call this single issue voting. If you are so passionate about a particular issue that you believe it always outweighs other policies an elected official must address while in office, single issue voting makes sense.
In practice, however, single issue voting rarely works. Sometimes political opponents agree. In other cases, the role and duties of office may have little or nothing to do with your issue. If your single issue is pacifism, for example, you can likely make a wise choice between candidates for Congress, but the issue will be of little use when voting for County Clerk.
Most voters decide it is best to evaluate candidates on the basis of several issues at the same time, so they need to find ways to prioritize what issues matter most to them. One method is to determine non-negotiable issues, those policy positions that are so important to you that a candidate must share your views on them to earn your vote. If issues are truly non-negotiable, skip voting in those races where neither candidate shares your views. Yet another approach is to create a list of your priority issues, those issues that you believe are most important for each elected office, and choose the candidate whose positions on these issues are closest to yours.
I also find it useful to consider the character of the candidates, evaluating which person I think will make the wisest decisions in uncertain times. Read about them and learn about their previous work, as elected officials or in other jobs and sectors. Did they earn the respect of their peers? Do they have a reputation for ethical behavior and wise decision-making? Are they honest? We can also learn a lot about candidates by the way they conduct themselves on the campaign trail, evaluating the tone and content of their messages, their successes or failures managing their campaign organizations, and the way they interact with their opponents.
Consider the Roles and Duties of Office
After you are comfortable with how to prioritize issues that matter most to you, it helps to find out what races are on the ballot in a given election. Once you know what offices are contested, learn more about the principal duties and powers of each office. Evaluate candidates much like an employer would screen resumes when filling a job opening, thinking first about the particular qualifications and background that seem most relevant for the job. All things being equal, it makes sense that candidates for district attorney would be lawyers with experience in trial courts, that a prospective sheriff have law enforcement experience, and that a state treasurer have a background in finance or accounting.
Look also at the duties and powers of office to determine the issues the elected official is most likely to influence. As you weigh the relative merits of competing candidates, consider their positions on issues most related to the particular offices they seek and then determine whose views are closest to yours on those issues. Consider a few examples. A school board member has significant power over budgets and curriculum at local public schools, so pay particular attention to each candidate’s views on education and fiscal responsibility. A sheriff has great influence over criminal investigations and law enforcement, so compare the candidates’ statements about their priorities for running the sheriff’s department.
No Perfect Formula
Much like the nature of politics itself, weighing the importance of issues and selecting a candidate among imperfect choices requires a delicate balancing act and will likely require compromise. There is no perfect formula for choosing a candidate; even as a professional political scientist, I have found an occasional voting decision so difficult that I have intentionally chosen no one. If you enter the voting booth and don’t feel comfortable with your choices for an office, leave it blank and cast your vote in the other races on the ballot.
Free elections are essential to a vibrant democracy. Voting is an important way we support our political system and help determine who will represent us in government. I encourage you to vote on November 6 and make your voice heard.