The Jack- and Jane-Of-All-Trades Democracy
A commentary by Charles C. Turner
On November 2, I went to the polls to cast 34 votes. No, I’m
not some sort of election-stealing bandit. I was just an average
Chicoan, responding to the 34 items that appeared on my ballot.
This year we were asked to make choices on everything from allowing
18-year-old city council members to the president of the United
States, from “three strikes” laws to school board members.
This wide variety of issues brings up the question of the wisdom
of our smorgasbord democracy.
I am certain that we don’t all agree about the outcome of
the “big” issue—the nation voted for Bush over
Kerry by a narrow 51 percent to 48 percent margin, and Butte County
voters were almost as bitterly divided. All of us, though, should
be able to take pride in one outcome—voter registration.
Thanks, in part, to the efforts of Associated Students (who registered
4,499), there are about 10,000 more registered voters in Butte County
than there were in 2000. Unfortunately, when it comes to turnout,
our numbers were down—68 percent of Butte County’s registered
voters cast a ballot, a 6 percent drop from the last presidential
If more of us are accepting the responsibility of registering, why
are fewer of us voting? Could the answer lie in the intimidating
size of our ballot?
The results we get from this anything-goes democracy are not always
consistent or, in my opinion, wise. This time around we Californians
voted for stem cell research and against health care coverage. Locally,
we voted for a liberal city council and a conservative state assembly
member. Do these inconsistent and sometimes unwise results on a
dizzying array of topics mean that our system is broken? Are we
forcing ourselves to become Jacks- and Janes-of-all-trades and masters
I don’t think so. That being said, I recognize that the complexity
of the contemporary ballot creates internal conflict for some—a
duty/responsibility to vote, but anxiety about not being fully informed.
We live in an increasingly complex world in many other respects,
too, but no one has suggested throwing in the towel on reading simply
because there are more books being published, or giving up television
because there are too many channels. We just become more selective
in what we choose to pay attention to. I suggest we do the same
with our right of franchise.
I’m not recommending that we only vote on issues we have a
particular interest or expertise in, but that we each become experts
where we can, and seek out the advice of others to fill in the gaps.
Most of us don’t feel embarrassed about seeking the help of
an expert when our car breaks down or when we have a tooth that
needs a filling, so why should voting be any different?
Chico is a vibrant community with experts in a wide array of fields.
We should share the burden of being a citizen and take advantage
of the expertise of others around campus and around town. Need to
know more about stem cell research? I bet there are plenty of folks
at Enloe who either are, or could easily become, knowledgeable on
this subject. Have questions about an initiative that limits unfair
business lawsuits? Both the campus and the wider community have
plenty of potential experts in the form of businesspeople and attorneys.
And as you scan down the list of races and measures for the next
election, find one or two that appeal to you and become an expert
yourself, then seek ways to share your knowledge.
Will this system lead us to utopia? Not in my lifetime. But it may
be our best option, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
As Winston Churchill put it, “Democracy is the worst form
of government—except all those other forms that have been
tried from time to time.”