Column: Elections aren’t perfect, but they’re better than the alternative

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 5, 2002

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. It’s election time!

Today, just as I have on Election Days during the past 22 years, I will be voting in local, state and national elections. Over that span of years, my favorite flavor of politics has shifted, from Republican to independent back to Republican to Green back to independent to, finally, the Independence Party. But despite the difference in ideologies, the voting has remained a constant.

Today, once again, all those Americans who are legally entitled to cast ballots should be voting, as well. Voting is an important right and responsibility for citizens of this country &045; or for any country that elects its leaders. For a citizen, it’s a thought that is both comforting and challenging.

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Voting brings comfort, because it means we can change our government, quietly, with minimal fuss or violence, without having to go to the barricades and turning our neighborhoods into battlefields &045; like what happened in Serbia, Macedonia, Sierra Leone, and many other places. Peaceful, orderly elections can lead to upheaval and shifts in priorities &045; like the current shift away from the social policies of the Depression era to those of so-called &uot;compassionate&uot; conservatism. But these changes are not the result of people seizing power through the barrel of a gun.

But voting also carries a challenge with it. Since we elect our leaders, responsibility for our nation’s choices, both the good and the bad, rests on our shoulders. If we go to war with Iraq, it will be because the voters of this country approve of that sort of action. If we don’t use force to solve the Iraq problem, that will also be a reflection on us. With elected leaders, we can pretend that they are doing things without our permission, but we would be lying to ourselves. Ultimately, everything that is part of our political system reflects the choices that we have made.

Elections are peaceful in the United States, but perhaps because of their importance, they are rarely boring. Many members of our society can become quite passionate about what’s going to happen. People make exaggerated claims about their issues, themselves (if they are a candidate), or the candidates they support (if they are voters).

And, because people are ruled by passion more than reason, campaigning can often turn quite ugly, with candidates trying to create negative images of their opponents. It’s often called mudslinging, and it can be pretty nauseating, but it’s part of the process. If it didn’t work to a candidate’s advantage, then it wouldn’t be happening; it wouldn’t have been happening for so many years. Obviously, despite all the complaints by voters, &uot;going negative&uot; gets people elected.

But no human institution is flawless, and our electoral system has its shortcomings. The corruptive influence of money is a major problem in our country; candidates are not taken seriously until they can point to a huge campaign fund. Citizens with more money get more access to candidates, and then to officeholders. Candidates with more money can buy more TV ads smearing their opponents.

Elections are often unfair. Yes, ordinary people can vote, but often the choices they see are managed by rich and powerful people who work behind the scenes. It’s not difficult to see why many citizens become apathetic and don’t even bother voting.

And it’s still far too easy for distortions, misinformation and outright lies to become part of the political process. For example: despite the fact that Al Gore didn’t actually create any of the &uot;lies&uot; attributed to him during the last presidential election, the label stuck because enough people repeated it often enough &045; another example of propaganda’s &uot;big lie.&uot; How many of the accusations currently being made about different candidates are truthful and how many are just more &uot;big lies&uot;?

Nevertheless, I’ll live with commercials featuring stupid &uot;Batman&uot; skits or trumped up accusations that make otherwise decent human beings look like Adolf Hitler’s stepchildren. The alternative to free elections is much darker, and much more dangerous.

So if you’re reading this on Nov. 5 and you haven’t voted yet, get your butt to the polling booth. Giving in to apathy or despair only creates more problems. The system works best when everybody participates.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.