Vote Smart, Not from the Heart
12.27.2005 13:23 | DISPATCHES
As detailed by Professor Ilya Somin in "When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy," most people vote based on vague feelings about how life is treating them. (Though written for the faux-libertarian Cato Institute, his policy analysis is useful.)
It doesn't have to be that way. Project Vote Smart examines both candidates for federal office and elected officials in five basic categories: biographical information, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances, and interest group ratings for recent years.
Take the representative from the district I live in, New York's eighteenth: Democrat Nita Lowey. Citizens for Global Solutions (2005), dedicated to global interdependence, gave her an A+ on foreign aid and policy issues. But Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (2004) gave her a -4! (How many congresspersons suffer from that Achilles heel, Israel: All the right stances and votes on human rights--except for Palestinians.)
On abortion, National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League (2004) graded her 100; the National Right to Life Committee 0. That's typical of abortion, which is an all-or-nothing issue. On other issues candidates and officials tend to congregate in the middle-ground.
Like many thinking voters, you may suffer from a more advanced form of that "vague feeling" to which Professor Somin alludes--that your candidate or official seems to vacillate in his views and vote inconsistently. If you're not afraid of finding your suspicion that schizophrenia rules the hall of Congress not only confirmed, but dissected, go to Project Vote Smart.
Congresspersons, of course, labor under the need, real or perceived, to avoid antagonizing lobbying groups for fear their election funding will be cut off. The net effect, in the case of a liberal congressperson, is that his progressive efforts are cancelled out by the unprogressive positions he feels to compelled to adopt.
When he leaves office, he looks back at his years in Congress. However, it's tough to maintain the illusion that, however hard he thinks he worked, he was a positive force for his district and the nation. If he's lucky, he voted 51% constructive by progressive standards, 49 percent negative. That doesn't leave a statesman's legacy much margin for error.
Meanwhile, Project Vote Smart is a tool for the voter to rise above the masses and vote with more than the too-oft-led-astray heart.