Sunday, September 2, 2012

Understanding It All

I don’t believe the average American understands politics. I pay more attention to politics than the average American because knowing about it is one part of my job, yet I don’t understand it either.

Government basics were (and hopefully still are) taught in school in classes called Civics or Political Science. We learned about the three branches of government, executive (the President, the cabinet, etc.), legislative (the Senate and the House) and judicial (Supreme Court, federal courts). By the way, I had to look it up to make sure I got the correct names. We have fifty states and several territories, each with its own governments; some laws and policies are at the state level and can vary from state to state, and some laws and policies are federal.

Most Americans know that much. Do you know any additional details? Each state has two Senators and each state has a number or representatives determined by the state’s population. At present, that means we have 50 Senators and 435 Representatives. I knew those numbers without looking them up; yes, I am showing off now.

But what do you know beyond those facts? What do I know beyond those facts? Those are the most basic details, but are really just the tip of the iceberg. Other more complex details involve who is in charge of what, who enforces laws, who makes what laws, etc. At the state level it gets even more complicated. Each state has similar branches of government but some go by different names and shoulder different responsibilities. Even states have different designations … most are called ‘states’ but Virginia and Massachusetts are ‘commonwealths’. Forty-nine states have counties, but Louisiana has parishes.

Our government was founded more than 235 years ago and the basic original principles and forms of governing are still essentially the same. That says a lot about our ‘founding fathers’ … they had vision and what they designed worked and still works, with appropriate updating. But people today often hold onto original ideas even in the face of possible contemporary improvements. Best example? The Electoral College. In the 1700s, this body was formed as a compromise between the idea of Congress electing the President and citizens electing the President. Basically we vote for our ‘electors’ and they vote for the President. Each state gets electors totaling the numbers of Representatives plus the number of Senators. Most states have a ‘winner takes all’ policy, meaning whatever Presidential candidate gets the majority of votes gets all of the Electoral Colleges votes for that state. But states being independent states, some states allocate their ‘electors’ based on a proportion of voting results. (Yes, I had to look all of that up). What this means is that it is possible for one candidate to win the most votes but the other candidate can still become President. Al Gore beat George Bush in the popular vote in 2000, but the race was very close and Bush ended up with more Electoral College votes and became President. I am still pissed off about that.

Do you understand that whole last paragraph?

My point is that politics is a very complicated thing which is difficult for most citizens to understand. Yet we all have the right and responsibility to control our government. It is complicated and flawed in some ways, but I believe it is still the best one on the planet. It is out of control in many ways but it is still ours. Most people, regardless of political affiliation, believe government should be smaller. The difficulty, or course, is we don’t all agree on how to make it smaller. What should be cut and what should stay.

One additional point … no matter how complicated politics may be, don’t just ignore it. With our right to vote comes our responsibility to vote. Research the issues that are important to you and vote for candidates who you think will support your views on those issues.

I’ll close with this odd but interesting observation on why each of our votes DOES count. In the Presidential election of 2000, 105 million people voted. Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than George Bush but because of winner-take-all policies in most states, Bush got more votes in the Electoral College. A candidate needs 270 to win and Bush got 271. ONE vote in the Electoral College changed the outcome of history! There were just under 185,000 polling places in the United States on that Election Day. If just two (or maybe even just one) voter at each polling place who didn’t vote had voted for Gore, the outcome could have been completely different. By the way, I did not vote in that election and after that I vowed to never skip a Presidential election again for the rest of my life.

Obama and Romney are in a statistical tie right now and chances are the election this year will be close, maybe as close as it was in 2000. Staunch supporters of each candidate think their guy can walk on water and fix everything that’s wrong; and if we believe that, we’re all full of shit. But both of these guys have leadership abilities and both believe in their plans. Regardless of how complicated politics is, regardless of how difficult it is to understand, we each have a right and an obligation to pay attention to issues that are important to us and to vote for the candidate we feel can best address those issues.

Every vote counts. Put November 6th on all of your calendars now!

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