November 8th, 2016 – Sunny Tuesday morning, the poll booths bustling with energy. We drove into a residential area, a community center in the midst of the surrounding apartments, and we picked up our ballots.
I went in feeling confident – I had read through the 2016 Voter’s Guide I received in the mail, and I had been keeping abreast, as much as I could endure, the endless media babble amidst the two primary primary candidates.
But as I walked my ballot into my booth, a quarter-circle corner desk with dividers, I saw three double-sided 11 x 17 sheets of paper, with bubbles to scribble in like you see on state-mandated standardized scantrons. And I thought – oh, Jeses. Am I going to know what I’m doing?
As I looked at the first item on page A-1, I felt confident. Blah, blah, Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, blah, blah. I felt good as I meticulously filled in the bubble, hearing in the back of my mind a faint teacher’s voice, gently reminding her students that if it isn’t filled in black all the way, the machine might not pick it up. I felt, for a brief moment, the callous that embedded itself from such rigorous circling along the side of my middle finger, disfiguring my nail. I remembered the hanging chads that had so plagued the 2000 election, that had ultimately altered the fate of the country as Florida counted, and counted, and counted. I was determined to create certainty by means of my vote.
But as I continued down the line, for State and district offices, I was bewildered by just how many public office positions there were to fill in, and how many candidates were running. The names I saw for months in advance escaped me, and, feeling the beginnings of an ache at the base of my neck from hanging my head down, I began to skim.
Party alignment. Previous titles held. Name ethnicity. Anything I could grasp to make a sad attempt at an educated guess. It was test-taking 101: what was the statistical likelihood that I would choose a candidate that actually represented me, that backed policies that I believed in? 50%? 75%? 80%? I was just short of closing my eyes and letting my index finger land, with a definitive thud, on my candidate of “choice”.
During this haphazard guessing, I made the incorrect assumption that “incumbent” meant “citizen” – some random Joe off the street who attended town hall meetings in his spare time, who argued endlessly, who criticized bitterly, claiming that he could do a better job than the people in office – in fact, he would by running for office.
Comparing this “incumbent” to a titularly qualified candidate, like a director, or a CEO, or councilmember, I chose the experienced candidate every time, thinking that since I didn’t feel the immediate pinch of the status quo, they must be doing something right. Then I proceeded to C-1, feeling the wash of relief as I finally recognized the Propositions that I had read up on. When I checked my voter guide later, I found that I had voted according to my prepared positions, despite having forgotten what the individual measures and corresponding numbers were. My gut aligned with my prepared, critical thoughts.
All this to say – I did, upon getting into the car with my partner, reveal myself to be a fool when I explained that in my attempt to make my best (Berkeley) educated guesses, I had chosen those I had perceived to be experienced, qualified candidates over those “random incumbents off the streets.”
My partner stopped me mid-sentence.
“Wait, what do you mean, random incumbents?”
“Aren’t incumbents like, regular citizens without prior experience?”
“What? No. Incumbents are the people who are currently holding the office.”
As in, the people who have the most relevant experience for the job – people who are already doing the job.
Now, admittedly, not every incumbent may be the most qualified person – I am sure I do not have to back my claim that incompetent politicians, who specialize in playing politick instead of representing, defending, and empowering their communities, all the time. However, I was shocked by my realization that in attempting to make the conservative choice of maintaining the status quo, I had actually accomplished the opposite – voted for the newcomer – because of my unquestioned assumption that I knew what I was doing.
As to the real and immediate impact of my mistake – I am not sure. Perhaps a microscopic ripple in the tsunami wave of informed, intention-filled voters. But I fell into the classic caricature of the dumb American voter – ill-informed, yet hasty, confident, and defending their actions even after realizing their error.
As I did – I claimed to my partner, after he wryly claimed, “Well, I guess that cancels out my vote,” that I’m not the only one who voted like that, that my single vote did not determine the definitive outcome of the election, that maybe it would work out in my favor, that my candidate may actually turn out alright – may turn out to be the winning horse.
He nodded in silence, but I could feel the prickly loss of confidence and respect, however minute, he felt in me. In my lack of preparation. In my careless act of throwing the decision to fate, of acting upon emotion and assumptions and stereotypes and party leanings. Of not caring enough to think things through.
All this, after having shaken him awake at 6:30 in the morning, riling him up to take advantage of our democratic right to vote. Of convincing him, with a full lecture, about fulfilling our duties as American citizens to make our voice heard. Of emphasizing that he muster up faith in the American people and our determination to blaze the trail as the beacon of democracy.
So, on the one hand, I can shrug and say, “Hey. I’ll do better next time. It probably didn’t make that big of a difference. I voted mostly right, according to my ideals.”
On the other hand – what if I am a representation of my demographic, the educated young adult who is just smart enough, just cocky enough to wave off due diligence – of doing things “mostly right” in such a way as to provide these politicians with just the right spin, just the right narrative, to set me in exactly the direction that serves them best?
What if I ate right out of their hands? After thinking of myself, again and again, as above all that? What if I fell for those same old tricks that made me laugh and sneer when I saw other, stupid, ugly people falling for them? Those idiots.
All that to say, I now have a clear trajectory for personal development. RTFM. Do your due diligence. Don’t let your lizard brain off the leash so easily.
And don’t underestimate how stupid you can be. You can be plenty stupid if you give yourself the chance.