Voter registration drives, phonebanking sessions, canvassing trips to Las Vegas—all of these are signs that many students at the Claremont Colleges are invested in the upcoming presidential election. Students who follow the presidential race intently—especially those who also volunteer for a campaign—should be applauded for their civic engagement, whether they favor Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or a third-party candidate.
Yet, it would be a mistake for students to focus their electoral attention exclusively on the presidential election. When it comes time to cast a ballot—a minimal form of political participation that no eligible voter should neglect—each of us will be asked to do more than mark our preferred commander-in-chief.
Depending on our place of registration, we may be presented with choices for members of Congress, governors, state legislators, judges, district attorneys and many other government officials. In California, as in some other states, citizens may vote directly on whether to adopt state laws. It would be a shame to abstain from all these non-presidential contests, because they will profoundly affect public policy.
The president is America’s most powerful elected official, but we should never underestimate the influence of other officeholders. The future of American politics depends largely on whom we elect to serve in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. State legislators, for their part, routinely deal with vital issues like gun control, public university budgeting and the definition of marriage.
Meanwhile, state ballot measures can have enormous consequences. For example, California’s Proposition 34 will give voters a chance to decide whether the state should maintain or eliminate the death penalty.
Given the stakes, voters should study up on all candidates and propositions before casting their ballots. This means that students voting in Claremont should know in advance whether they prefer Chris Holden or Donna Lowe for California State Assembly.
If you think you don’t need to do your homework because you can always vote the party line, think again. Some elections, like California judicial races, are non-partisan and therefore require voters to assess candidates individually.
It might take a few hours of research to fill your ballot with informed decisions, but don’t let the time commitment deter you. Full participation in democracy is worth the effort.