Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Day is Here!

Over the weekend, I carefully and scrupulously read over my Voter’s Guide from Washington State, completed the lengthy ballot, then emailed it back for tabulation in this quadrennial exercise of participatory democracy. Emailing got me in before the deadline, but my votes won’t actually be counted until my paper ballot is received later this week through the mail, properly signed and dated.

Though I’ve lived in the Greater Toronto area for almost a quarter century, I remain a legal voter based on my former address in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle. I’ve now been an absentee voter for more years than I was a resident voter. I’ve been a registered voter in a few states: New York, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, and Indiana, in addition to Washington. I never actually voted in New York, because I was away at university in Massachusetts in 1972, the first year when eighteen year-olds could vote, and my absentee ballet wound up in a college administration building instead of in my dormitory mailbox, as I’d expected. So I never completed that first vote. It turned out not to matter very much, as that was the year of the Nixon landslide. My first presidential vote wound up being cast in Massachusetts four years later, for Jimmy Carter. Next time around, after primary season and my first caucus, in Kansas City, and disillusioned with Carter by then, I cast a vote for my first third party candidate, in the person of Republican defector, John Anderson.

In 2004, I did a vote swap. I wanted to give Ralph Nader a boost, but didn’t want to risk Kerry losing a vote he might need to prevail. So I voted for Kerry in Seattle, while a trusted friend promised to vote Nader in New York. But, I wasn’t actually in Seattle. That vote was already my 4th absentee vote for President, made from Canada. This is my seventh.

A few years ago I became a Canadian citizen, and my dual status allows me to participate in the electoral process of two countries. The voting experience is quite different here from what I became used to in Seattle. In Canada, which has a parliamentary system, one usually gets to cast only a single vote, that is, to make a determination on only a single matter. One reason is that municipal, provincial and national voting doesn’t generally happen at the same time. But the more substantial reason is that, here, you essentially have to align yourself with a party. In last year’s federal contest, I cast a vote for the local candidate for Member of Parliament who represented the party of my preferred national leader, and that was that. Had I really liked the national leader, but thought the local candidate an idiot (or vice versa), I’d have been stuck with a “neither or both” choice.

Contrasting with that, the ballot I just mailed back to Washington was a hefty eight pages. It included dozens of votes. In addition to my choice for President, I also made choices for Senator, Congressional Representative, Governor, lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Treasurer, Attorney General, and several judgeships and memberships on school boards and insurance commissions.

My favorite part of voting in the U.S. – and this varies widely from State to State – is the presence of Initiatives and Referendums. An initiative is a ballot measure put forward by a citizen or citizen group. All that’s required to get a measure on the ballot is a required number of signatures, enough to demonstrate that there is considerable interest. A Referendum, on the other hand, is a measure that the legislature has decided – for any number of reasons, practical or political – to refer back to the electorate for approval. Sometimes there will be competing Initiatives and/or Referendums, representing different solutions to a problem. These measures reflect a degree of direct citizen participation in government. Often these measures have a high public profile and generate huge campaigns that rival those of contenders for office.

In Washington State, the Initiative movement has been very strong, at least in the 34 years since I’ve been voting there. This year alone there are initiatives to:

-         Increase the minimum wage

-         Create a system to finance political campaigns

-         Allow family members to restrict access to guns by the violent or mentally ill

-         Increase penalties for fraud and identity theft targeting seniors

-         Create a carbon emission tax on fossil fuels

-         Push for a constitutional amendment to deny the rights of persons to corporations
In addition, there are a couple of other advisory measures, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, a city of Seattle initiative to improve health, safety and labor standards and protection for hotel employees, and a measure to fund the expansion of the light rail system. The ballot comes with a booklet containing non-partisan explanations of the measures and arguments and rebuttals, pro and con, as well as links to information about supporters and financing of each side.

It took me several hours over the weekend to read up on all of the measures and to make my choices. But it’s a wonderful exercise that forces one to carefully consider the responsibilities of citizenship. And it leaves me feeling that, though I’m long gone, I remain a citizen of my native land, and that I still play a role in shaping the future of a community that I continue to love and that was my home for quite a few years.
This election season, which has been so tortuously long and divisive, is finally ending. It’s been a perfect demonstration of how ugly and messy democracy can be. But as they say, it still seems like about the best system going.