Tuesday is election day. Well, not exactly. As this newspaper reported in September, early voting has turned what used to be election day into the last day of "election month."
Election month is bad, but it is a symptom of a deeper problem that makes the underlying problem worse. As George Orwell said, "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, but then fail all the more completely because he drinks."
The deeper problem is that we simultaneously expect too much and too little of casting a ballot. See, for instance, actress Lena Dunham's "5 Reasons Why I Vote (and You Should Too)" on Planned Parenthood's website. Reason No.1: "When you vote, you feel so, so good." "You will have the best day just because you voted," she says. "I wore fishnets and a little black dress to vote, then walked around with a spring in my slinky step. It lasted for days. I can summon it when I'm blue. It's more effective than exercise or ecstasy or cheesecake...."
Of all the reasons to vote, using ballots as a balm to cure low self-esteem has to be the most pathetic. But it is reason No. 5 that gets to the heart of the problem. Dunham says that "voting is kind of a gateway drug to 'getting involved.'"
This is a widely held view and, as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no truth to it. But even if voting boosted civic participation, the very idea puts the cart before the horse. It is like saying you should buy a car because that way you might learn to drive or take the test and then study for it. Voting should come at the end of civic engagement, not the beginning.
Of course, it's no wonder that politicians, activists and consultants are constantly shouting, "Fire! Aim! Ready!" They've taken to heart a consumer culture that sees closing the sale as the only important metric. The hosts of shopping network QVC don't care if you actually use the exercise equipment you buy, they just want you to believe that buying a Shake Weight will make you a better person long enough to process your credit card.
It's amusing to note that Dunham, who can be seen dancing in her dingy underwear for a Rock the Vote video encouraging young people to vote (and vote liberal) in these midterms, didn't vote in the last midterms. I guess she didn't need the self-esteem boost then.
Both political parties are determined to boost turnout among "low-propensity voters," a euphemism for people who don't care very much about politics. Naturally, this often means they also don't know very much about politics. As a result, the pros must tell them their votes matter more than they do. Saying, for example, "If you don't vote, Mark Udall won't be the Democratic senator from Colorado anymore" isn't enough of a motivation. But saying, as NARAL Pro-Choice America did in a radio ad, that if you don't vote, the GOP candidate will ban birth control and cause a condom shortage might get some of these voters to turn out.
Now, if you haven't been paying attention, you might not know that Udall's GOP challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, actually favors making birth control available over the counter. That's forgivable ignorance. But if you think one senator from one state can ban birth control (never mind that he doesn't want to), then you are so staggeringly clueless about how our political system works, you shouldn't vote at all. Any self-esteem boost you might get from pulling a lever in a polling booth would be like a pebble in the ocean of shame you should feel for being so ignorant.
Now, it's entirely true that the practice of inflating the stakes of an election was old when Periclean Athens was young, but making it so much easier to vote exacerbates the problem, the same way taking to drink makes Orwell's drinker all the more of a failure.
"Vote first, ask questions later" is not a mantra of good citizenship. It's a marketing strategy designed to reward politicians for voters' ignorance.