Advice to aspiring voters before the ballot

In November, citizens from all over the U.S. will gather to perform a civic duty that unites Americans: voting. For those 18-year-olds graduating from SAS and moving to the States next year, the presidential election on Nov. 8 will  mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Many young voters who will participate in the election for the first time this year are nervous about casting their ballot, fearing that their lack of knowledge about the complicated political system of the U.S. will be an obstacle. Some even question the importance of their vote – why should we care about politics in our country or abroad? Does our vote even matter?

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Donald Horowitz, political scientist

Political scientist Donald Horowitz addresses some of these concerns. Firstly, don’t worry if you feel that you are less interested in politics than your “I’m a Poli-Sci major” best friend. Mr. Horowitz said, “Not everybody has the same interests. If everyone were interested in politics, there would be an overheated political system. A minimum level of interest is essential, however, in order to be an informed citizen.”

Often, an overheated political system occurs when many people are deeply interested in participating politically – whether that be in support of or against a policy or action of the government – but they aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about the background of what they’re fighting for. “There’s a difference between being interested and being knowledgeable,” Mr. Horowitz continued.

Today, for example, many Bernie Sanders supporters adamantly support his socialist policies, but do not have adequate knowledge of socialism’s detrimental history. According to Mr. Horowitz, an aspiring knowledgeable and informed voter should gain a general understanding of “basic history [of a voter’s country], the functions of political parties that form policies to satisfy their supporters, and how the government functions.”

Many international students, however, may already have a leg up on their American counterparts when it comes to casting a meaningful ballot. “Politics has a lot to do with foreign affairs,” Mr. Horowitz said, and “many Americans have a poor understanding of countries outside of the United States.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.06.01 pmYoung voters currently living abroad already have had more exposure to international relations that affect U.S. politics than the typical American teenager.

“I wouldn’t condemn those who choose not to vote, because they are less informed and therefore less interested,” Mr. Horowitz said. Afterall, an uninformed voter dilutes the votes of more educated citizens. According to Mr. Horowitz, however, it’s important for those with basic knowledge of the candidates in an election to vote, even if neither one is ideal. “One is the lesser evil…even if they’re not your preferred candidate, you should vote before someone else chooses the worst one.” This may be especially true when it comes to the current presidential race in the U.S. that is likely to boil down to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – neither of whom are particularly popular among millennials.

There are alternatives to voting for one of the two major party candidates. However, some options may be more effective than others. Writing in a candidate, or voting for the third party nominee have proven to be ineffective forms of protest. In the political system of the U.S., most primary elections are conducted by plurality, meaning that the winner takes all the delegates votes, making it difficult for third party candidates to have success.

Mr. Horowitz suggests supporting reforms to the current electoral system that would help surface second and third party candidates. He, like many others in the U.S., is encouraging the adoption of the alternative vote, which allows voters to rank their preferred candidates. Candidates with the smallest number of first rankings drops down, and their voters’ second choices become their new first preferences. This system ensures that a majority of a state’s citizens support the winning candidate in primary elections, even if they’re not the voter’s first choice.

“Trump, for example, is the first choice of a minority, but the second choice of almost nobody,” Mr. Horowitz states, which may be why much of the public has been left dumbfounded by the success of such a controversial candidate. Alternative voting has been adopted in many cities recently, such as Oakland and San Francisco, resulting in a much friendlier race. Candidates want to receive their opponent’s voter’s second-choice ranking, should he or she not receive enough first preferences.

If students really cannot bring themselves to enter a polling site on election day, there are other forms of political participation to partake in. Depending on the issue, Mr. Horowitz cites letter-writing or engaging in protests as two alternatives. One characteristic of Americans that has been noted since Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of the U.S. in the 1880s is their “propensity to form organizations,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Joining with people who have common interests or concerns is a way to practice self government,” which goes hand in hand with the civic organizations that are an essential part of American society and is yet another efficient form of political participation.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.14.14 pmCome this November, whether or not students decide to make the trip to a polling site on election day, they should remember that there is no specific criteria required to be a politically active citizen. Staying informed and participating in ways that will advance personal goals and values is just as important as casting a ballot.

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