A Publication for the faculty, staff, administrators and friends of California State University, Chico
November 11, 2004 Volume 35, Number 3

Page One Stories

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 election.

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 of none?

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.”



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