Editor’s Note: Elizabeth C. MacKenzie Biedell is a former intelligence analyst at the CIA. After leaving government service, she received an Open Society Fellowship and is writing a book on how the public can be better informed on national security issues that involve classified information. The opinion in this article belong to the author.
Elizabeth Biedell: Many people don't want to vote for either presidential candidate. Sound like you?
Here's a quick fix: Break up with the idea of the perfect president
Don’t feel like voting? You’re not alone.
For many people, it’s not because they’re torn between the candidates for president, but because they don’t want to vote for either one. Sound like you or someone you know?
Here’s a quick fix: break up with the idea of the perfect president. Be willing to vote for one that is pretty good. Not perfect, not god-like, not likable, not “just like me” or someone who “gets” you.
In fact, maybe it’s time to break up with the president altogether. I’m not suggesting you don’t vote in the presidential contest, per se, just realize that other people are being elected the very same day to “check” and “balance” the president’s power.
Don’t become despondent because the presidential candidates don’t seem just like you; realize that your relationship with the president has become way too intimate and it’s time to see some other people – namely Congress.
So to help you get excited about doing your civic duty, I suggest you do two things right now: 1) Get real about how much a president has to share power with Congress and 2) take a close look at who is running to represent you in Congress. This person represents far fewer people than the president’s 300 million and you have a greater chance of getting your voice heard during their term.
Putting all our eggs in the president basket
Ever since the 1950s, the president has been coming into our living room each day on our televisions, and our relationship with this person has deepened into a basic need for them to represent all of our hopes and dreams.
We think we know them and they know us. Like a sitcom star, they feel a part of our family. So when the choices don’t strike us as people we’d want in our living room, it can be paralyzing.
For too long we have been looking at the president as a god-like figure. Someone all-powerful, elected to fix everything. Every four years, we think that if we just pick the right person, all of our country’s problems will magically go away. We blindly ignore the reality that the president is not a king and has to contend with Congress on nearly everything.
And the media is no help in reminding us of this reality. News about local races and congressional races are not reported on to nearly the same degree as the presidential race. The president is the star of the nation’s news.
Divorcing your feelings from your presidential choices is key. Leave aside how the candidates make you feel and use your head to decide who might be best. Ignore whether the president is likable. Look at the issues, but also how they work with others. Positions on key issues are important, but presidents don’t create laws alone. He or she must be able to convince others as well as compromise.
Scarily, presidents can start wars practically on their own. So in addition to working well with others, a good mind, good judgment and keeping calm under are pressure very important characteristics.
It’s time to see other people
The person you elect to represent you in Congress is your most direct route to influencing what goes on in government. But because you almost never see congressional candidates or representatives interviewed on TV, they have not had a chance to make a big impression on you. There’s just no relationship there.
Most of my friends who pride themselves on being fairly informed have no idea who our congressman is right now. This means that if there is an issue that one of my friends wants to influence, they are more likely to sign an online petition or do nothing than pick up the phone and call our congresswoman.
And, believe it or not, your congressman’s office actually wants to hear from you. Have a position on an upcoming vote? They want to know. They log your call. They verify your address. They take your name. You can’t call the president and do the same thing. If you call the White House they may log your call and take your name for a different reason.
The point is you and your congressional representatives have a relationship that is designed to be more direct and intimate. You should know who is running and what they are about. You should know them just as well as the presidential candidates. And while you are at it, once elected, your senators and representatives’ office email addresses should be in your contacts.
If you feel that our democracy seems less and less representative, you are right. Constitutionally, there can be only 435 representatives to represent all Americans, despite the growing population. Add two senators per state and that makes 535 people to represent 300 plus million.
So you’re not imagining it. Your elected congressman represents more people than they ever have before. The connection between you and your elected representative is getting more tenuous. The only good news is that your congressman represents far fewer people than the president.
Congress has to work well together to be as powerful as the president. So before you vote, a key question for you to answer about your congressional candidates is how likely they are to do their job once elected. You may have heard the term “broken branch” in reference to Congress. It’s called this primarily because Congress has become increasingly paralyzed because so many members are unwilling to compromise.
The problem with this stagnation is that it can make the president’s power stronger and in other ways the whole government weaker and less effective. It “off balances” the checks and balances intended by the framers of the Constitution. It essentially breaks the government.
For many congressmen, they do this out of fear that they will not be re-elected if they compromise. And to be fair, they are often not rewarded by their constituents for getting things done or passing bills – especially in a very partisan district.
So for the incumbent candidate, find out if they have sat out or blocked key votes. And when you vote, maybe look for someone who only plans to serve for a few terms, is an independent thinker and/or is willing to break with their party to vote moderately.
Keeping the relationship exciting
Once the election is over and your congressional representatives have been decided, it’s time to find out the best way to develop the relationship and communicate with your senators and representatives. How do they want you to convey your views on various issues to them? Via email? Calls? Facebook? And you can ask if they will have regular town halls so you can provide input.
Views on Election 2016
You can also reach out and communicate how you think they should perform their duties. Drop them an email, or for more impact, design an online petition that demands for example, a number of town halls or a promise not to miss more than a certain number of votes.
You could also ask them to be in Washington, D.C., most days of the week, or support a vote on declaration of wars or military action. You can also iterate your support that they should be willing to work with members of the opposition party, especially in areas that affect public safety and national security. Then get people to sign it, and deliver it to the newly elected congressional member when they take office.
For extra impact, deliver a copy to your local newspaper as well and ask for their help in tracking the representatives performance. Encourage them to report on your representative and senators’ job performance rather than just the individual’s various speeches or meetings. Keep the media accountable to help make Congress more transparent.
Now get out there and vote!