American political campaigns are one-of-a-kind. As you move up the scale from local elections to the presidential race, you see larger and larger staffs, budgets, and machineries in what has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. We’re a long way from the old days when candidates made appeals from the rear platform of a train or delivered their stump speeches on literal stumps. Now campaigns carpet-bomb us with social media content, online ads, video messages, and more across stretches of months or even years.
The whole process is meant to inform and influence us and our votes, but the inundation can complicate things. For those who approach voting with their morality, spirituality, or religion actively in mind, there is even another layer of complexity to consider. Let’s work through a few things that might help a thoughtful person discern their best vote.
Voting is worth it
American politics are often bureaucratic, stalemated, corrupt, or worse. This can leave voters thinking, What’s the point? Will my vote really change anything? In an age where gratification usually comes quickly and clearly, voting isn’t so simple. With the exception of binding referenda — when a voter answers a question yes or no, and the popular vote binds the governing body to follow suit — the direct influence of a voter and their vote is difficult to pin down.
A few things are certain. First, the right to vote is significant. Those of us who securely possess this right must exercise it, and do so in support of those who will continue to guarantee it for us and others.
Even if your vote doesn’t break a tie, it still communicates something. Modern politics is fueled by polling data, including exit polls from elections. And even in a solid “red” or “blue” state, your vote will be more widely pooled with others of your party, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, location, and more to help demonstrate trends in the electorate that will influence policy.
Finally, no elected official can exercise political power without winning election or reelection — the voters decide that. And don’t get too obsessed with the race for president only! The elections for your Senate and House representatives, your state assembly representatives, local offices, and other ballot items like bonds and referenda are significant, too. In fact, they may prove more significant to your day-to-day life.
Voting in the U.S. is mostly a false dilemma
My high school composition teacher taught us that claiming that someone only has two choices in a situation when they actually have more is a logical fallacy and nullifies the line of argument. Unfortunately, for complex reasons, the two-party system in our nation isn’t going anywhere in the near future, and ensures third-party and independent movements are minimized.
As you consider candidates and parties, remember that no party is a monolith. The party may have a platform that most candidates mostly follow, but there will always be variations.
Personally, I appreciate those candidates who belong to a party while also holding positions that are less common for their affiliation. Additionally, if religion is a factor for you, know that neither main party has or will ever match up closely with any one religion’s views — even as one party or another may emphasize certain positions, no party can claim any religion or its adherents.
Party affiliation comes with pros and cons. For instance, people who live in “closed primary” states must be registered as a partisan in order to vote, so those who identify with a party actually have more voting rights (see what type your state is here). Party affiliation can also draw you into social networks and grassroots organization that can help you be active in community causes, service, or other positive activities.
On the other hand, party affiliation might come with the feeling that you must support a certain roster of candidates and all of their issue positions, which could put you in an undesirable spot. One pro to remaining independent is that you may feel more free to evaluate candidates and platforms on their individual merits and make unique choices each time.
A thoughtful vote requires you to dig deeper
Sound bytes can be manipulated to take a candidate’s views out of context or create a catchy moment with minimal detail. Tweets and social posts may go viral but can lack substance and often go negative. Even debates can short-change candidates or their positions and plans because the format doesn’t allow for much authentic discussion. All of these things can leave you with a shallow sense of a candidate.
Soldier past the snippets to find bigger bites of information to digest. Find an old speech the candidate gave, perhaps before they were more well-known. Review their voting record, especially on bills covering the issues most important to you, and find their public remarks from when the bill passed or failed. Consult reputable newspapers and local media for their editorial board reviews and endorsement decisions and explanations. However you do it, give yourself the time and space to excavate more information about the candidates than what falls into your lap from passive consumption.
Invite your beliefs into the process
The U.S. is a place of religious diversity, and various traditions and denominations have different expressions and emphases, which yields a wide range of candidates. Personally, as a Catholic, I am proud when I see Catholic politicians who are openly faithful and striving to navigate the tensions of political life. More broadly, while I don’t seek out and vote only for Catholic candidates, I do look for candidates who are open about practicing religion; I’m drawn to those who express an authentic desire to live out the best teachings and actions of their faith — or, if they are non-religious, at least uphold religion as a positive in society.
When it comes to informing your voting decisions, the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer. First, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) offers an update every four years to their guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The guide offers some framework and context for being conscientious as a voter; its lack of specific, explicit directions for Catholics (and others) can feel like both a deficit and a strength.
Another source that might factor into your thinking is Catholic Social Teaching (CST). CST gathers wisdom from our tradition and the experience of generations of faithful people to direct our action for social justice. Catholic Relief Services is one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, so they have a wealth of insight into how to apply CST — dig into the seven themes of the tradition with their CST 101 series, which contains videos, articles, and art.
Finally, another way to synthesize a lot of these ideas is through the prism of the “consistent ethic of life.” Articulated in a famous speech by the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, the consistent ethic of life simply claims that all human life is completely valuable and dignified from conception to natural death. Utilizing these principles in your deliberative process will help invite a conscientious decision informed by social justice.
Try to work toward two or three ultimate criteria for your final vote
Part of good discernment is choosing a time to step back from the explorations and searches you’ve been doing and give yourself time for self-reflection to make a decision. If you feel like you may be approaching information overload, stop to take stock of all you’ve gathered. Find the things that impacted you most deeply and also prioritize the things you value most — as a person of faith and as an American voter and citizen.
This is easier said than done perhaps, so here are the points I arrived at approaching a past election that I’ll start from again this year. First, who will represent us and stand for humanity with integrity and character? In this respect, I am thinking not just in terms of economic interests and military might but in terms of cooperation and global solidarity. Second, who will more thoroughly and completely uphold the consistent ethic of life? In this regard, I’m upholding life issues — from abortion to child care, paid parental leave, education access, healthcare, gun control, care for the elderly, end-of-life ethics, and more.
However you work toward a final decision, voting is a worthwhile, if challenging, way to engage political life, which has direct implications for how we live and care for others. If we’re to be people of integrity, we have to exercise this right with care and diligence. So challenge your conscience ahead of time — voting is social action.