I was more than a little disturbed during the 2010 campaign when I volunteered to make calls on behalf of a friend and candidate. I worked my way through neighborhood directories of registered voters cold calling and asking people to consider voting for a neighbor, friend and community volunteer willing to serve. People only wanted to know one thing: "Is he a Democrat or Republican?"
The lesson for me was Montgomery County voters don't care about issues. We want a simple fix, an easy choice.
Folks, it isn't that easy!
Forgetting the parties for a moment, let's say you're a one issue person. Only one thing matters for you and you know the candidates will split on the issue. You'll vote for whomever shares your view on that issue and commit yourself accordingly. The cost of your vote is accepting all of your candidate's collective baggage -- including their party and the candidate's stance on other issues. Your job is easy as long as you don't care about other issues.
Consider the current Republican battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. If you are strongly pro-life or pro-choice that may lead you to vote for one or the other based on what you know about them. But will Santorum really move the needle against Roe vs. Wade? Is it worth voting against a man of strongly professed and illustrated conviction to his values just because you're pro-choice?
Consider this in the other direction: You are strongly pro-life and, based on that, you prefer Santorum. Is it really a good idea to ignore all of Romney's accomplishment in both the private and public sector given where the country is right now?
It's interesting to me that as the amount of information available to us increases, we tend to think less critically - buying media stereotypes as a simplified way to boil down the information into digestible chunks. It's much easier to believe that Republicans hate immigrants and old people than to understand the complexities around reforming the significant problems with our systems for immigration and social security.
Likewise, it's easier to believe that Democrats foolishly spend other people's money than to appreciate the enormous cost of services we are demanding from the government. The truth is, Republicans want government to work well for everyone and that might mean scaling back commitments. Democrats define "work well for everyone" as meeting citizen demands for services. There is a natural tension between two parties that want to do what is best for our society and that is good.
What isn't good is how they (and we) play identity politics - throwing ourselves all in with one side or the other, demonizing the enemy and fighting for the political power to implement the respective parties' (with which we may not completely agree) agendas.
Get to know your candidates. Read their websites and their press clippings to understand where they stand on the issues and how their experience qualifies them for the office they seek. As the information itself becomes more ubiquitous your opportunities to meet candidates in person seems to be expanding.
I was lucky enough to have coffee with Kathy Afzali yesterday. Kathy is a Maryland state delegate and candidate for the new MD-6 congressional seat. Like all candidates, Kathy would be thrilled to talk with a group of neighbors as small as 10-12 people. She'll be having dinner at the Cuban Corner on March 15 and you should feel free to show up and say hello and get to know her.
Unlike the presidential debates you watch on TV that take place in large auditoriums with candidates coming out from backstage, local congressional debates tend to be intimate. Events like this take place in the same high school gyms in which you are accustomed to watching your kids play basketball or perform school plays. You will likely get to shake hands with the participants and ask questions on a 1 to 1 basis. (The link above will take you to the GOP District 15 website which provides some informative and unbiased information on several key local issues.)
In addition to opportunities for meeting candidates in person and understanding their full range of values, there are a multitude of opportunities to learn about issues separate from the politics of party and candidates. Issue-oriented advocacy groups will certainly inject a point of view into the information they provide but by and large you can expect to get a fact-based point of view.
I like Americans for Prosperity. Despite the image promoted by the mainstream media of evil right-wing haters, the AFP Foundation is focused on educating voters. With a grain of salt, you can become a very well-informed voter. This week they are promoting an examination of the President's recently proposed budget. View this webinar and form your own opinion.
(Interestingly - I'm just reporting here… you decide what it means - I am non-partisan so I scanned both the MCDCC website and the Chris Van Hollen website and found no such opportunities to get to know candidates up close and personal.)
Please remember that we get the government we deserve. Good government doesn't come cheap so get out there and know the issues and the people you are voting for… not just their labels!