Choosing candidates in the August primary can be confusing. The other night, friends and I talked about how we make our decisions, and I’m sharing our thoughts in this column. Hopefully they’ll be useful when you mark your ballot.
I always start with character: Can I trust this person – even if we disagree on issues? Will the candidate stand up for what she or he believes? Sometimes I have clear evidence of a candidate’s character; other times I have to trust my gut. I just can’t support candidates who aren’t trustworthy or lack the courage of their convictions.
Next come values: does the candidate share my view of what’s important? On some issues this is pretty clear. Take choice for example. Some people believe women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their bodies and reproductive health. Others believe government should highly regulate these decisions. As a candidate, I work hard to make my values clear, and I’m suspicious of candidates who don’t.
Other issues are trickier. These are sometimes called “motherhood” issues because everyone is in favor, just like everyone speaks well of mothers. Public safety is a motherhood issue; when’s the last time you heard a candidate speak against public safety?
If you care about these kinds of issues, you’ll need to dig deeper to understand candidates’ strategy. Does a candidate propose to “get tougher” on crime as their public safety strategy? What does that mean, exactly? Raise taxes, or divert money from existing programs? And for what? More police? More drug treatment?
I like values voters, the people who believe in something and look for candidates who support their beliefs. It can take some work to be a values voter, but it’s … well, valuable.
Another way to choose among candidates is by party. In bodies like Congress, the state legislature, and the Pierce County Council, the majority party has greater power to achieve its goals. The majority decides who chairs committees, and the committee chairs decide what bills to hear and move out of committee. Majorities matter.
If you prefer the philosophy of a particular party, you’ll want it to have power. You can help by voting for that party’s candidates.
A fourth way to think about elections is in relationship to change: are you happy with government’s performance? If voters are satisfied they’ll return incumbents to office. If things aren’t going so well, voters may try someone new. This is why incumbents tend to talk about how well things are going (“school test scores keep climbing!”), and their challengers talk about how bad things have become (“traffic is getting worse!”).
Change can be good or not so good. As an incumbent, I’d like to think I become smarter and more effective the longer I’m in office. But a critic could say I’ve become an insider, satisfied with the status quo and afraid to shake things up. This is where an incumbent’s record is important. Do you like the way I vote on the issues you care about? Have I provided leadership on those issues, convincing other legislators to vote with me? And if you call my office for help solving a problem, do you get the help you need?
Sorting out a candidate’s record can be time consuming; this is where endorsements, our fifth and final method, are useful. Lots of organizations research candidates and make endorsements based on how well the candidates line up with the organizations’ values.
Business groups endorse candidates they consider pro-business; labor unions endorse pro-labor candidates. Political action committees (PACs) linked with issue-oriented groups like Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association endorse candidates who support the groups’ positions. And political parties endorse candidates who reflect the parties’ values and programs.
Individuals also endorse candidates; some voters scan lists of endorsers, looking for the names of people they trust.
Perhaps the most significant endorsement is a financial contribution; we all give to candidates who share our beliefs. The Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) is an excellent source of information about who gives to whom; the web site – pdc.wa.gov – is user-friendly.
These are the methods my friends and I use to choose among candidates. No single method is perfect, and so I tend to use several of them, starting with character, understanding values, studying positions. I’d love to hear about your methods. Being an informed voter takes some work; but the more we know, the better results we get from our government.
Laurie Jinkins is a public health official from Tacoma who serves as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the 27th district.